Ireland’s violation of International Abortion rights: A perpetual Déjà vu.

We are pleased to welcome this guest post from Aisling McMahon and Brid Ni Ghrainne.

Abortion is only permitted in Ireland when the life of the mother is in danger, making the Irish abortion framework one of the most restrictive in the world. This week, the Committee Against Torture questioned Ireland about its lack of progress in reforming Irish abortion law[1] and stated that it must explain its human rights obligations to the Irish public before any referendum on abortion.[2] This comes as little surprise as the Irish framework has previously been criticised extensively by four other international human rights committees.[3] The Human Rights Committee has twice found – in Mellet v Ireland[4] and Whelan v Ireland[5] – that Ireland violated Art 7 (right against torture, inhumane or degrading treatment), Art 17 (right to privacy) and Art 26 (right to non-discrimination) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) for not providing access to abortions to women whose pregnancies suffered fatal foetal abnormalities. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Committee on the Rights of the Child have also urged Ireland to change its restrictive abortion framework.

However, no changes have yet occurred. Instead, in response to the decision in Mellet v Ireland the then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny dismissed the Human Rights Committees’ views as not being ‘binding’ and ‘not like the European court’.[6] This exemplifies the confusion that exists regarding Ireland’s international law obligations relating to access to abortion. In response to these recent developments, this post considers: (1) why Ireland should adhere to the views of the respective Committees, and (2) how Ireland can bring its laws into conformity with international law. Continue reading “Ireland’s violation of International Abortion rights: A perpetual Déjà vu.”

Ireland’s violation of International Abortion rights: A perpetual Déjà vu.

Ireland’s Failing Abortion Law: Statutory Interpretation, Human Rights and the Detention of Pregnant Children.

Mairead Enright (@maireadenright)

Yesterday, the Child Care Law Reporting Project published a summary of a District Court case from 2016. A  suicidal teenager’s GP referred her to a consultant psychiatrist. She was pregnant and did not want to be. Under s. 9 of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act (PLDPA) the entitlement to access a life-saving abortion must be certified by three doctors (two psychiatrists, at least one of whom has experience in treating pregnant women, and an obstetrician). Their job is to assess whether there is a real and substantial risk to the woman’s life from suicide, which risk can only be averted by terminating the pregnancy. This statutory test, restrictive as it is, mirrors the 8th Amendment as interpreted in the X case – the sources of constitutional law which provide that abortion is only available in Ireland where necessary to save the pregnant woman’s life. Continue reading “Ireland’s Failing Abortion Law: Statutory Interpretation, Human Rights and the Detention of Pregnant Children.”

Ireland’s Failing Abortion Law: Statutory Interpretation, Human Rights and the Detention of Pregnant Children.

RIA Conference on Human Rights and the Social Sciences, June 22nd.

The human rights movement has done a great deal of good in improving the lives of people around the globe, however, as evidenced by recent political upheavals, its embodiment as a contemporary ‘ethics of progress’ is increasingly being questioned. Events such as Brexit point to the role played by cultural and political factors in the realisation of human rights and raise the issue of the role of the social sciences in helping to ensure human rights as a lived reality.

In light of this, the Social Sciences Committee of the Royal Irish Academy is organising a conference on ‘Human Rights and the Social Sciences’ which will take place in Academy House in Dublin on Thursday 22nd June 2017 (10am-4.15pm). Continue reading “RIA Conference on Human Rights and the Social Sciences, June 22nd.”

RIA Conference on Human Rights and the Social Sciences, June 22nd.

Barriers to first trimester abortion care.

We are pleased to welcome this guest post from Dr. Deirdre Duffy from the Liverpool-Ireland Abortion Corridor Project.

As the Citizens’ Assembly turn to the ‘when’ of abortion access, many are highlighting that allowing first trimester abortion in specific cases is highly problematic. The question of access and first trimester care is complex so it is worth summarising the key problems with first trimester focused access.

Barriers to access

A central problem in the timely administration and delivery of high quality care is the existence of ‘barriers to access’. These barriers can be structural, organisational, social, or personal and are usually a combination of a number of factors which prevent those who need care from getting it. By ‘getting’ here it is vital to recognise that patients are not passive – care is a dynamic process of requesting/approaching and being given care.

Importantly for Ireland, barriers to access are not just imposed from above but are embedded in cultures of care. So removing a barrier is more complex than simply funding an abortion clinic (for example) or making abortion legal as while the clinic may exist it may not have trained staff or have staff willing to perform abortions.  

Access and abortion care

In addition to questions about availability of trained professionals, financing of facilities, and proximity, abortion care has to factor in further barriers relating to abortion stigma and attitudes to abortion and women seeking abortion. As a result of abortion stigma, women may not approach care facilities for fear of repercussions. This barrier can be compounded by underlying norms and social factors both within and beyond caring institutions. If, say, a religious organisation which opposes abortion in all circumstances is placed in control of a hospital, a significant barrier to abortion care will inevitably result.

Abortion care access also needs to recognise the ‘timings’ of care-seeking and care-giving. Women may not know they are pregnant until well into the first trimester. Furthermore, health problems (foetal and maternal) become more apparent as pregnancy progresses. Acute care needs may only be detected in the second trimester or later and even then access may be limited by a lack of geographically proximate facilities.

What does this mean for a first trimester focused law?

The key problem with a first trimester law in Ireland is that barriers to first trimester abortion care are not impacted by liberalisation of abortion under 12 weeks gestation. Doran and Nancarrow’s systematic review (http://jfprhc.bmj.com/content/41/3/170.short; paywall) on barriers and facilitators for abortion care in countries where abortion is legal and the Guttmacher Institute’s regular reviews of barriers to care in the United States highlight core barriers which may not be impacted by this sort of change. These are divided into patient and provider perspectives in the table below.

Women’s perspectives Provider perspectives
Lack of proximate services Moral opposition
Lack of appointments/waiting lists Lack of training
Negative attitudes of staff Too few physicians
Associated costs of abortion Staff harassment
Insufficient hospital resources

Synthesis of barriers to first trimester abortion care – from Doran and Nancarrow (2015)

What would this mean in practice?

If a first trimester liberalisation is instituted then the front-line of sexual and reproductive and maternity care in Ireland will need to be closely explored. As research I have already been involved in highlighted (see here: https://mcrmetropolis.uk/blog/what-happens-when-women-have-to-travel-abortion-care-and-lessons-from-ireland/) communication between services in Ireland is not consistent. There are also significant issues relating to the cultures in hospitals – particularly if the Sisters of Charity are to be given ownership of the National Maternity Hospital, the key destination for acute maternal and foetal medicine – which will not be addressed by a legislative change.  

 

Barriers to first trimester abortion care.

Having Our Voices Heard – the Official Languages Act foreshadowing the Recognition of Irish Sign Language for the Deaf Community Bill

by Gearoidin McEvoy.

Ireland is no stranger to language rights. Language has, since the birth of the Free State, been an integral part of national identity. Many will be aware of the curious position of Irish held in the 1937 Constitution, as the first official language of the state, having preference legally over English. The position of Irish, perhaps initially as an indicator of separatism between our former colonial power has gone on to protect a person’s right to use their first language.

Language services are essential to realising one’s right to use their mother tongue. For the vast majority of Irish speakers, Irish is an option and not a necessity. If a situation warrants the use of English, however, it is more than likely that an Irish speaker will be completely competent and capable. In many cases it is a necessity for Irish speakers to use English because the services provided are slow, ineffective or unobtainable. Irish speakers are repeatedly forced to speak English, or to accept diluted versions of rights and procedures, regardless of the constitutional protections in place since the foundation of the state. And while this constitutes a violation of the rights granted to Irish speakers under the Constitution, Irish speakers are indeed left with English as an alternative.

However consider if a person cannot speak English. How can they access public service such as the courts or education? In all likelihood, this may occur every day in Ireland in respect of migrants who have not learned English. However, consider now a person who cannot speak at all, or lacks the capacity to speak English, Irish or any other spoken language, for that matter. The Deaf community in Ireland face this problem every day. And their struggle to have their voices heard, their language recognised acts as a barrier to some of their most basic rights.

On a European level, only four states have provided for constitutional recognition of sign language, with other states offering varying degrees of provision for sign language legislatively. Under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the first document of its kind specifically dedicated to acknowledging and protecting minority languages, no states have opted to protect any form or sign language and the dedication to protecting “spoken” languages may very well pose an obstacle for any attempts to do so. In fact, it is only the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that provides any concrete international requirement for states to recognise and protect speakers of sign language.

However, the importance of recognising sigh language cannot be understated. Language is the medium through which we access our human rights – without understanding a trial, a custodial hearing or a police officer, can it really be said that a person has been given a fair trial? Without understanding a doctor before an emergency medical procedure, can a person be said to have given their consent? These may be dramatic examples, but if, for example, a Deaf person cannot take a driving test because there is no instructor or examiner capable of training or testing them, then surely this would amount to discrimination on the basis of a disability, or perhaps, language. As the Justice and Equality Committee itself has stated

The current experience of the Irish deaf community is one of extreme marginalisation due to the lack of sign language recognition and provision. This manifests itself not just in their personal lives but in their interactions with the organs of the State, including the education system, the health service, the courts system and the national parliament itself.

In the past few weeks there has been great advances in the possibility of recognition of Irish Sign Language as an official language in Ireland. The provisions of the Recognition of Irish Sign Language for the Deaf Community Bill, 2013 (the Bill) go a long way towards minimising the discrimination and lack of services available to the Deaf community in Ireland, and the move towards the Bill becoming law is generally met with great optimism.

However, there is little evidence to suggest that these new provisions, however positive they may seem, will be realised in actuality. Irish speakers have been screaming into the void for recognition and equality for almost a century and there is repeated failure to provide proper services to them. For example, the recent state introduction of postal codes resulted in more complaints to the office of the Coimisinéir Teanga than ever before since it came into being in 2004. This was largely due to the translation of people’s names and addresses to English when the Irish versions had largely only ever been in use and demonstrated an example of the difficulty faced by individuals while merely attempting to use their own name when dealing with public authorities. This is not the first time the Coimisinéir Teanga has encountered such problems. In fact, in the 2014 Annual Report from the office of the Coimisinéir Teanga, misspelling of names in Irish was considered a problem “occurring on a daily basis”. This may even constitute a violation of Article 8 – the right to private and family life – of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) pursuant to the case of Bulgakov v. Ukraine. The case involved a man who, after Ukrainian independence in 1991, had his passport issued with the Ukrainian version of his name, despite his name being Russian. Although the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found no violation of Article 8, this was due to the fact that there were procedures in place nationally that would have allowed him to change his passport name. However, in Ireland there is no statutory requirement to correct the Irish spelling of a persons name and a local authority may refuses to correct it without national consequence. The State continues to disregard such basic rights of Irish speakers despite the introduction of legislation in 2003, painting an ominous prospect for the hopes of remediating the “extreme marginalisation” experienced by the Deaf community.

The lax attitude to enforcing language rights for the Irish language is evident not only from the annual reports from the Coimisinéir Teanga, but also from the high profile resignation of the first Coimisinéir in 2014. The Irish Sign Languages Bill contains extremely positive articles and it appears as though it will greatly impact the lives of the Deaf community. However, when compared with the Official Languages Act 2003, the Bill appears to be less detailed and imposes vague requirements on public bodies.1 The Bill does not give constitutional status to Irish Sign Language. In respect of Irish, it has often been only the Constitution that has provided a saving grace for language rights. With only a legislative backing, it seems unlikely that Irish Sign Language would fare better than its minority language counter-part of Irish. Whether or not the Bill will come into law as it is currently drafted remains to be seen, but the real question is whether or not the Bill will make any difference. The Official Languages Act 2003 has had little effect on the manner in which Irish is treated by government authorities and the provision of Irish language services remains sporadic at best. This is in the face of a population who, for the most part, have English to fall back on if needs be. The Deaf community may not be so lucky, however, and although there are those who have residual hearing and those who can communicate aurally, there are those in the community who cannot and for whom Irish Sign Language is a necessity. Considering the difficulty experienced by Irish speakers to even use their names with official state bodies, it does not bode well for the expectation of a linguistic utopia for the Deaf community on the implementation of the Irish Sign Language Bill.

1 Compare, for example, Article 9 of the Official Languages Act 2003 with Article 8 of theRecognition of Irish Sign Language for the Deaf Community Bill 2013

Having Our Voices Heard – the Official Languages Act foreshadowing the Recognition of Irish Sign Language for the Deaf Community Bill

Progress Report on the Northern/Irish Feminist Judgments Project.


Screenshot 2016-07-11 13.28.36

The Northern/Irish Feminist Judgments Project brought together a collective of academics and practitioners to write the “missing feminist judgments” in appellate cases which have shaped Irish and Northern Irish law. Beginning in 2014, we held a series of events, to support and publicise the work of the Project. We held four ‘Drafting Workshops’ at which our Judges presented versions of their “missing judgments” for discussion and feedback. To accompany the Workshops, we curated a series of interdisciplinary panels, which facilitated broader reflection on aspects of gender, identity and the law in Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Book

We are pleased to announce that our book will be published in January 2017. The book is available for pre-order here and a table of contents is available here.  Pre-publication versions of some of the book’s contents are available online:

Events and Outreach

In March, the Transitional Justice Institute at the University of Ulster hosted a discussion on the project which featured contributions from the first women judges of the Northern Irish High Court; Mrs. Justice Keegan and Madam Justice McBride. The project has also featured at events including Law, Revolution and Sovereignty at NUIG (a video of Mairead Enright’s talk is here), the Gender, Sexuality and Law Research Seminar at Northumbria University and  ‘Abortion and Reproductive Justice: The Unfinished Revolution‘ in Belfast. Aoife O’Donoghue spoke about the project onNearFM. At DCU, students participating in the Aoife King Internal Moot drew on lessons from the feminist judgments project. We also featured in the University Observer.

Further Information

For further information, email irishfeministjudge@gmail.com. The project website is at www.feministjudging.ie or you can follow us @irishfjp on twitter.

Progress Report on the Northern/Irish Feminist Judgments Project.

The UN and the Eighth Amendment

This letter is cross-posted from today’s Irish Times.

Sir, – The UN Human Rights Committee has found that Amanda Mellet’s right to be free from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, her right to privacy, and her right to equality before the law were violated because Irish law did not allow her to access abortion in Ireland in a case of fatal foetal abnormality.

It has held that Ireland must amend its abortion law, including the Constitution if necessary, to ensure compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), including ensuring effective, timely and accessible procedures for pregnancy termination in cases of fatal foetal abnormality in Ireland.

The Taoiseach and others have noted that the findings of this committee are not “binding”.

Here are six legal and policy reasons why Ireland must take good faith steps to implement the findings and comply with its international obligations:

1) In 1989, Ireland voluntarily ratified the ICCPR. Under international law, it must now comply with the treaty in good faith. It cannot invoke its Constitution, or any other domestic law as rationale for failure to comply (Articles 26 and 27 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties).

2. Although the UN Human Rights Committee does not have the status of an international court, Ireland has accepted its competence to hear individual complaints and to give authoritative interpretations of the ICCPR. Its members are impartial and independent. Ireland recognised the committee’s competence to issue determinative interpretations of the convention when it ratified the ICCPR and its optional protocol.

3) When Ireland subjected Ms Mellet to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, it committed an internationally wrongful act. International law, including the ICCPR, requires it to remedy this wrongful act, provide reparations and guarantee non-repetition. Ireland cannot invoke provisions of its domestic law as rationale for a failure to do so (Article 2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; Articles 1, 3, 30-32 of the Principles on Responsibility of States for Internationally Wrongful Acts).

4. It is immaterial to Ireland’s responsibility under international law that the relevant treaties have not been incorporated into domestic law or that as such the decisions of the committee are not necessarily enforceable in Irish courts. Under international law a lack of enforcement options under domestic law, or the fact that under domestic law the committee’s decision is not binding, can never be used as justification for non-compliance.

5) If Ireland does not remedy the harm suffered by Ms Mellet and guarantee non-repetition it will place Irish medical professionals in profoundly difficult ethical situations and place them at risk of complicity in cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

6) If Ireland does not remedy the harm suffered and guarantee non-repetition it will leave itself open to repeated future litigation against the State before the UN committee or other international bodies, including the European Court of Human Rights.Until the legal framework is brought into line with Ireland’s international legal obligations, the likelihood is that women will continue to engage with international legal institutions to seek recognition of rights violations, remedy, and guarantees of non-repetition.

– Yours, etc,

Prof. Fiona de Londras, University of Birmingham Law School
Mairead Enright, Lecturer in Law, University of Kent
Prof. Christine Bell, University of Edinburgh Law School
Prof. Fionnuala ni Aolain, University of Ulster Transitional Justice Institute
Prof. Siobhan Wills, University of Ulster Transitional Justice Institute
Prof. Aoife Nolan, University of Nottingham Law School
Prof. Laurence O. Gostin, Georgetown Law School
Prof. Oscar Cabrera, Georgetown Law School
Lilian Abriniskas, Women and Health in Uruguay
Mónica Roa, Colombian Attorney, Global Advocate, Expert on Reproductive Rights.
Sharon Pia Hickey, Teaching Fellow, Global Gender Justice Clinic, Cornell law School
Ailbhe Smyth, Coalition to Repeal the 8th
Niamh Allen, Head of Membership and Development, National Women’s Council of Ireland
Helen Guinane, Parents for Choice
Senator Ivana Bacik
Professor Tamara Hervey, School of Law, Sheffield University
Dr. Rosa Freedman, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Birmingham
Dr. Aoife O’Donoghue, Senior Lecturer in Law, Durham University
Dr. Paul O’Connell, Reader in Law, SOAS London
Dr. Rose Parfitt, Lecturer in Law, University of Kent
Dr. Eilionoir Flynn, Senior Lecturer in Law, NUI Galway
Rumyana Grozdanova, Lecturer in Law, University of Liverpool
Dr. Anne-Marie Brennan, Lecturer in Law, University of Liverpool
Dr. Illan rua Wall, Associate Professor in Law, Warwick University
Dr. John Reynolds, Lecturer in Law, NUI Maynooth
Dr. Bríd Ní Ghráinne, Lecturer in Law, University of Sheffield
Dr. Sorcha McLeod, Lecturer in Law, University of Sheffield
Dr. Michelle Farrell, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Liverpool
Maeve O’Rourke, Barrister
Dr. Natasa Mavronicola, Lecturer in Law, Queen’s University Belfast
Ntina Tzouvala, Lecturer in Law, Durham University
Dr. Liam Thornton, Lecturer in Law, UCD
Dr. Stefanie Khoury, Postdoctoral Research Associate, University of Liverpool
Dr. Kathryn McNeilly, Lecturer in Law, Queen’s University Belfast
Dr. Catherine O’Rourke, Senior Lecturer, Transitional Justice Institute, University of Ulster
Dr. Alex Schwartz, Lecturer, Queen’s University Belfast
Dr. Sheelagh McGuinness, Senior Lecturer in Law, Bristol University
Dr. Vicky Conway, Lecturer in Law, Dublin City University
Prof. David Whyte, University of Liverpool
Dr. Ruth Fletcher, Senior Lecturer in Law, Queen Mary University of London
Jennifer Schweppe, Lecturer in Law, University of Limerick
Professor Rosemary Hunter, Queen Mary University of London
Dr. Amel Alghrani, Lecturer in Law, University of Liverpool
Dr. Anne Neylon, Lecturer in Law, University of Liverpool
Dr. Katherine O’Donnell, Associate Professor in Philosophy, UCD
Colin Murray, Senior Lecturer in Law, Newcastle University
Dr. Sinead Ring, Lecturer in Law, University of Kent
Dr. Elizabeth Campbell, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Edinburgh
Dr. Fergus Ryan, Lecturer in Law, NUI Maynooth
Dr. Louise Crowley, Senior Lecturer in Law, UCC
Dr. Catherine O’Sullivan, Senior Lecturer in Law, UCC
Dr. Sara Ramshaw, Senior Lecturer in Law, Exeter University
Dr. Alan Greene, Lecturer in Law, Durham Law School
Jane Rooney, PhD Candidate in Law, Durham University
Eilish Rooney, Senior Lecturer, Transitional Justice Institute, University of Ulster
Muireann Meehan Speed, PhD Candidate, Oxford University
Dr. Sorcha Ui Chonnachtaigh, Lecturer in Ethics, Keele University
Dr. Edel Quirke, PhD in Law
Eileen Crowley, White & Case LLP
Wendy Lyon, Solicitor
Orla Ryan, Barrister
Kate Butler, Barrister
Dr. Joan McCarthy, Lecturer in Healthcare Ethics, UCC
Goretti Horgan, Lecturer in Social Policy, University of Ulster
Suzanne Guilloud, Barrister
Claire Nevin, Human Rights and Social Affairs Adviser for the EU Delegation to the Council of Europe (personal capacity)

The UN and the Eighth Amendment

Call for Papers: State Accountability for Vulnerability

On September 9th 2016, the Socio-Legal Research Centre, Dublin City University will host its biennial law and society conference. Following on from the success our inaugural conference on Judges, Law and the Irish Constitution in 2014, the theme of this year’s conference is State Accountability for Vulnerability. The purpose of the conference is to analyse the response of the Irish State to present and historic vulnerability caused or exacerbated by public policy. The conference will have two streams, one which examines the detail of vulnerability in defined areas. A second examines the various accountability mechanisms which have or could be used to acknowledge the State’s role in creating and/or contributing to this vulnerability and to provide remedies to victims/survivors.

The conference will bring together academics, practitioners; judges; politicians; representatives from NGOs and other civil society organisations and postgraduate students. We welcome submissions from any discipline on issues relevant to the conference theme. Papers should address aspects of the theme in at least one of the following categories:

Historic institutional abuse;
Disability;
Ethnic minority groups;
Asylum Seekers, migration and direct provision;
Vulnerability caused by austerity;
Medicalised vulnerability;
Vulnerability arising from gender;
Vulnerability while in the care of the State;
Vulnerability and crime;
Investigative mechanisms for accountability;
Accountability mechanisms;
Strategic litigation;
Reparative schemes.
Abstracts for papers should be submitted to the conference convenors at the following email address dculawconference@gmail.com

The deadline for submission is Friday June 24th 2016.

Abstracts should be a maximum of 300 words and should fit within the conference theme. While practice-oriented papers are encouraged, they should engage with more general historical, socio-legal or theoretical dimensions. As well as considering the academic merit of the abstracts, the assessors will also consider whether the proposed paper fits with the general theme and specific categories. We aim to notify applicants of our decisions by Thursday June 30th 2016.

A selection of papers from our previous conference Judges, Politics and the Irish Constitution were compiled in an edited collection and published by Manchester University Press. This book will be officially launched on the evening of the conference. We hope to produce a similar peer-reviewed edited collection from the papers presented at this conference.

Plenary Speakers:

Prof Nina A. Kohn, Syracuse University College of Law

Prof Titti Mattsson, Lund University

Lord Lester of Herne Hill, QC

Noeline Blackwell, Dublin Rape Crisis Centre

Conference Convenors

Dr James Gallen, Socio-Legal Research Centre, DCU

Dr Tanya Ní Mhuirthile, Socio-Legal Research Centre, DCU

Key Dates

24/06/2016 Submit abstract
30/06/2016 Notification of assessors
09/09/2016 Conference

Call for Papers: State Accountability for Vulnerability

UK at the CESCR: A Focus on Benefit Sanctions

We are pleased to welcome this post from Isla McLachlan, of Durham University.

The UK’s periodic examination by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) is underway. After years of austerity there is a plethora of damaging policies for the Committee to interrogate.

One of the most pernicious – and often unseen – policies that the CESCR will have before it is the ‘benefit sanctions’ system. A ‘benefit sanction’ is the cessation of an employment related social security payment when claimants do not meet conditions placed upon them. Given that claimants are often vulnerable and in challenging situations and conditions have become increasingly stringent, the current sanctions system is almost certainly in violation of obligations under the International Covenant on Economic and Social and Cultural Rights.

Over the past year, Law students from Durham Human Rights Centre worked withThrive Teesside, a charity in Stockton on Tees, to put together an assessment on the impact of these sanctions in the North East of England. The report that was produced found that the UK is not measuring up to ICESCR standards well.

Right to Social Security

On the Right to Social Security, it was found that the UK is in violation by failing to progressively realise the right at an appropriate rate, and in fact has imposed retrogressive measures. This is evidenced, for example, by the number of those with a mental health condition who were subject to a sanction rising from 35% in 2009 to 58% in 2013. There has also been a decrease in number of individuals who can seek redress has because of narrow mechanisms of redress and drastic cuts to legal aid.

Beyond these sometimes difficult to demonstrate obligations, the UK has additionally failed to ‘ensure that the social security system will be adequate, accessible for everyone and will cover social risks and contingencies’ (General Comment 19). Most vulnerable claimants are unable to access much of the support that is available. Many are required to visit a Job Centre and ‘sign on’ in inaccessible location, which causes them to miss appointments and be sanctioned.

The UK is required by the CESCR to:

‘provide appropriate education and public awareness concerning access to social security schemes, particularly in rural and deprived urban areas, or amongst linguistic and other minorities’.

However, in the current system most claims must be completed through an online form, causing difficulties for claimants who struggle with literacy or do not have access to the Internet. This, in turn, causes a lack of awareness of appeal procedures and of hardship funds. Even when individuals do appeal, they may often have to go without basic unemployment payments in the interim.

Further, sanctions reduce claimants’ ability to pay priority bills and buy food, and may impact claimants’ eligibility for housing benefits or council tax rebate. As a result, claimants’ living standards are reduced. Increased feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression are common.

Consider these hardships against the fact that around 40% of benefit sanctions decisions last year were overturned. The stark figure suggests that sanctions were often unjustly applied. In human rights terms, the State is giving insufficient priority to its obligation to provide even the minimum essential level of social security to enable people to acquire essential housing, healthcare and food.

Discrimination

Benefit Sanctions have been shown to affect the vulnerable in an indirectly discriminatory way. 58% of sanctioned Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimants are vulnerable people with a mental health condition or learning difficulty. This represents a 668% increase in benefit sanctions against people with mental health difficulty on ESA over the last four years.

In addition, a lack of flexibility in the system means that the differing needs of vulnerable people are not being recognised. Vulnerable individuals are not given proper support to communicate their requirements and concerns during Job Centre meetings. As a result, individuals are unable to negotiate a fair Claimant Commitment (the ‘contract’ to which they are later bound) on realistic terms.

Furthermore, individuals are often unable to receive the most appropriate advice and left unaware of what support or adjustments are available. Within the system, Disability Employment Advisors help with ‘work preparation, recruitment, interview coaching and confidence building’. However, the onus is on claimants to disclose their disability to their work coach and ask about the process and the next steps. As many claimants have an uncomfortable relationship with the JobCentre, this disclosure often doesn’t take place. As a result, claimants are frequently not referred to, or are unaware of, Disability Employment Advisors.

Right to Work

Another area where the CESCR might call into question the UK’s performance is in relation to the right to work. Aspects of the right to work, including providing ‘technical and vocational guidance and training programmes,’ have arguably not been complied with.

Thrive Teesside told us very clearly that the sanctions scheme and a lack of training meant that individuals were being pushed (or shoved) towards the labour market. This approach is not having positive results, as individuals are being put in the workplace without having the necessarily skills and capabilities. This puts individuals in an unfair position and ends in a damaging experience. It works against some vulnerable groups whose difficulties and skills may not be properly articulated and understood.

Although there are some opportunities for training, apprentice schemes pay well below the minimum wage and aren’t always available. The ‘Work Choice’ scheme is tailored to suit the needs of each individual disabled person and provides specialised support to find employment and to keep employment once a job has been found and started. However, underfunding means that very few people will be able to get a place on the scheme, with only 13,000 places available each year.As a result, claimants continue to be reliant on the Job Seekers Allowance system and are more likely to face sanctions.

Conclusion

There are multiple ways in which the UK, as a State party to the ICESCR, has not designed this aspect of social security policy in a human rights compliant manner. The benefit sanctions scheme is causing real hardship for vulnerable individuals in the area of the North East of England that we examined. As the CESCR carries out its examination of the UK it will be interesting to see how far it goes in finding violations of the Covenant.

You can read the full report herand follow the UK’s examination on twitter at #CESCR and #ICESCRUK16

UK at the CESCR: A Focus on Benefit Sanctions

GSOC, the legislative process, and the privacy rights of citizens: what is the law?  

 We are pleased to welcome this Guest Post from Eimear Spain and Shane Kilcommins.

The Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission is an independent agency established under the 2005 Garda Siochana Act to deal with matters involving possible misconduct by members of the Garda Síochána. Last month it was revealed that it scrutinised the phone records of two journalists. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Frances Fitzgerald, has appointed Mr Justice John Murray to carry out a review of the legislative framework in respect of access to communications data of journalists. In defending the use of such powers, the current GSOC Commissioners pointed out that it was the legislative body of the State which made Garda leaks a serious offence, and it was also the same body which granted powers to access phone records and internet data to GSOC. As the Commissioners noted: “Gsoc must use any lawful means provided by the legislature ‘to ensure that its functions are performed in an efficient and effective manner…’”.

Surveillance Powers

Surveillance powers are provided for under three main pieces of legislation in Ireland: the use of surveillance and tracking devices under the Criminal justice (Surveillance) Act 2009; the interception of postal packets and telephone conversations (phone tapping) under the Postal Packets and Telecommunications Messages (Regulations) Act 1993; and the use of information that has been generated by various service providers arising from the use of mobile phones and landlines under the Communications (Retention of Data) Act 2011. Under the 2011 Act, a request for disclosure of data may be made if a member of An Garda Siochana is satisfied that the data is required for the prevention, detection, investigation or prosecution of a serious offence. It is clear that the legislature made leaking of data by a member of An Garda Siochana is a serious criminal offence under section 62 of the Garda Siochana Act 2005, thus giving power to request data in any such investigation. 

What are GSOC’s surveillance powers?

Upon establishment in 2005, designated officers within GSOC were conferred with all the powers, immunities and privileges conferred on any member of the Garda Síochána under any enactment or common law in existence at that time or enacted subsequently including powers of entry, arrest, charge, summons, search, detention, questioning, and the taking of bodily samples. The only exclusions were contained in section 98(5) of the Garda Siochana Act, 2005 and related to powers under the Offences Against the State Acts and in relation to phone tapping. GSOC were specifically excluded from having powers under the 1993 Act, with members of the legislature submitting that giving GSOC powers to tap telephones would permit them to act ‘as a separate police force’. Michael McDowell, the then Minister for Justice, was even more explicit: “I would not be comfortable giving the Ombudsman Commission the right to tap the telephones of politicians or journalists in pursuit of its criminal investigations’. GSOC were also subsequently specifically excluded from the 2009 Surveillance Act, section 17 of which expressly provides that the powers under the Act, including surveillance and tracking powers, did not apply to them. This provoked considerable debate in the Dail but a proposed amendment to provide them with surveillance powers was not carried (69 against the proposed amendment as opposed to 63 for it).   

However, GSOC were given powers upon establishment in 2005 under the Postal and Telecommunications Act 1983 (as amended) to request information on the use made of telecommunications services. They were also conferred with powers under the Criminal Justice (Terrorist Offences) Act 2005 which compelled a service provider to comply with a request for disclosure of traffic or location data retained for the purposes of the prevention, detection, investigation or prosecution of crime (including but not limited to terrorist offences). This Act was replaced by the Communications (Retention of Data) Act 2011, which was introduced in the dying days of the 30th Dail. Most recently, section 5 of the Garda Síochána (Amendment) Act 2015, permits GSOC to use surveillance and tracking devices, and to intercept postal packets and telephone conversations, powers which were previously unavailable to them.

What are the potential issues with GSOC’s accessing of phone records under the 2011 Act?

The Communications (Retention of Data) Act 2011 provides under section 6 that a member of An Garda Siochana not below the rank of Chief Superintendent, an officer of the Permanent Defence Forces below the rank of Colonel, or an officer not below the rank of principal officer in the Revenue Commissioners could request data from the service providers under the Act. While GSOC was not mentioned in the section 6 access provision, as the Act conferred powers on members of An Garda Síochána, it is reasonable to argue that GSOC had an implied power under the 2011 Act. Nevertheless such an interpretation raises a number of concerns.

When the legislature confers powers on any agency to suspend or qualify the individual rights of citizens it should, where possible, not do so by implication. In order to maintain the integrity of the right in issue, the legislature should expressly provide the agency with the power, and be in a position, particularly at debate stage, to justify that power in the light of the right at issue. This ensures that limitations on the right have been reflected upon and considered, better ensuring that any limitations are proportionate, the least restrictive in the circumstances, and apply only so far as is strictly necessary. Catch-all provisions, such as that provided for under section 98 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005, do not facilitate or promote reflection about the rights of citizens in the Dáil.

The second concern relates to clarity around the existence of GSOC’s powers to access data under the 2011 Act. Given the value placed by society on the autonomy of the individual, it follows that our laws should be predictable and certain so as to ensure that each citizen has fair opportunity to know the rules and how they will be applied. While it may be implied that the powers conferred upon An Garda Síochána by section 6 were also conferred upon GSOC, it is significant in this regard that section 12 of the Act, which provides for judicial oversight of compliance by the various agencies with powers under the Act, makes no reference to GSOC as one of the bodies subject to review. The Garda Siochana, the Defence Forces, the Revenue Commissioners and, since 2014, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission are specifically mentioned. If the legislature intended to confer the relevant powers on GSOC, why did it not specifically reference it in the review provision under section 12 given that it did so with the other agencies? Furthermore, legal commentaries on the 2011 Act in the Annotated Statutes and Bar Review did not refer to GSOC in their interpretations of the agencies conferred with powers under section 6 of the 2011 Act. Such gaps do little to enhance comprehension or conceptual consistency; if lawyers are unsure, how does this sit with the ‘fundamental value’ that citizens “should know, or at least be able to find out, with some considerable measure of certainty, what precisely is prohibited and what is lawful”? 

Given such ambiguity, one wonders whether GSOC sought clarification on its interpretation of s.6 of the 2011 Act, particularly in the light of the rights at stake and its absence from the provision for review under section 12. This requirement of certainty takes on an added resonance when the rules in question provide powers to lawfully curtail the individual rights of citizens. Power conferring laws that suspend or qualify rights should – in order to maintain the integrity of the right in issue – be expressly provided for and justified in each instance, rather than included by in a catch-all provision under the 2005 Act which offers a rather imperfect mandate. The European Court of Human Rights has, for example, noted as far back as 1984 that because the implementation in practice of measures of secret surveillance of communications is not open to scrutiny by the individuals concerned or the public at large, ‘the  substantive  law  itself…must indicate the scope and manner of exercise of any such discretion with sufficient clarity, having regard to the legitimate aim of the measure in question, to give the individual adequate protection against arbitrary interference’. More recently in Shimovolos v Russia (2011), the European Court of Human Rights held that

‘because of the lack of public scrutiny and the risk of abuse intrinsic to any system of secret surveillance, the following minimum safeguards should be set out in statute law to avoid abuses: the nature, scope and duration of the possible measures, the grounds required for ordering them, the authorities competent to permit, carry out and supervise them, and the kind of remedy provided by the national law’.

In addition to promoting clarity, this demand for positive express legislative authorisation, review and justification can serve the important didactic purpose of reminding the power bearer of how seriously the State takes the rights of its citizens.

The third issue relates to legality, and in particular whether the designated judge has jurisdiction to review the exercise of powers by GSOC under the 2011 Act. It is important to note here that the 2005 Act confers the powers, immunities and privileges of membersof An Garda Siochana on designated officers of GSOC. While the 2005 Act specifically equates personnel within the two organisations, at no point in the 2005 Act is GSOC equated with An Garda Síochána. Section 12 can therefore not be read as providing for a review of compliance by GSOC with the terms of the Act by the designated High Court judge. This is significant, and raises issues about the actual existence of an express legal framework for reviewing GSOC’s practices, together with the lawful authority of an overseer to do so.

Aside from the difficulties relating to the protection of rights, clarity and legality, there are also questions to be addressed in relation to the oversight process between 2011 and 2014. It is not clear what oversight existed in relation to the 2011 Act until 2014. The designated judge under section 12 of the 2011Act makes no reference to GSOC in his 2011, 2012 or 2013 reports. It is only in the 2014 report that the designated judge mentions for the first time that he ‘attended the Office of An Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission’. The report of 2015 also mentions that GSOC was visited. The legitimate question this begs is whether GSOC was using its perceived powers under the 2011 Act prior to 2014, and, if so, what independent oversight was in place in that period. If it was using its powers under the Act between 2011 and 2014, but was not subject to oversight, does this have consequences for information gathered by GSOC during that period?

If, as seems to be the case, powers to access data records were also exercised by GSOC between 2005-2011, the question of whether there was any oversight of the exercise of those powers also looms large. Again there is no reference to oversight of compliance by GSOC in any publically available reports by the designated judge under the 1993 and 2005 Acts in the relevant period. Such practices would also have to be measured against ECHR jurisprudence, which demands at a minimum that oversight mechanisms in respect of surveillance ‘must be vested with sufficient powers and competence to exercise an effective and continuous control over the surveillance’.  In Klass v Germany the ECtHR noted that “[t]he Court must be satisfied that, whatever system is adopted, there exist adequate and effective guarantees against abuse.”

Conclusion

The right to privacy is viewed as a fundamental right that promotes autonomy and human dignity whilst also ensuring democratic freedom of association and expression. If the essence of such a right is to be protected and valued in a society, it requires that any limitations on its exercise should be justified, laid down in clear laws, apply only so far as is strictly necessary, and have robust, continuous, and effective statutory oversight mechanisms. Even from a simple analysis of the legislative process through which powers of surveillance have been conferred on GSOC, it is not clear that the legislature is taking such rights very seriously in Ireland.

Professor Shane Kilcommins and Dr Eimear Spain lecture at the School of Law at the University of Limerick.

GSOC, the legislative process, and the privacy rights of citizens: what is the law?