When Members at One Crown Office Row (1COR) first discussed setting up a Human Rights Website in 1997, what everybody had in mind was something that ran along the lines of a university law syllabus, with private law categories on one side, tort, contract, equity and so on; and public law on the other, with courses on constitutional, administrative and human rights law. At that time, our Chambers Academic, Rosalind English, was teaching public law in Oxford and the task fell to her to edit the website. It seemed fairly simple; human rights legislation was still in its infancy and the jurisprudence was safely confined to judicial review.

In the 12 years that have elapsed since that discussion, we have seen human rights litigation burst through the boundaries of administrative law and penetrate every area of litigation, from property law, commerce, personal injury, to clinical negligence. So much so that “human rights law” is no longer a free-standing subject, a position that was recognised a few years ago by Lawtel when they merged their human rights site into the general UK law database.

What, therefore, technically started as a relatively modest aim with a simple website structure developed for us by Enstar Ltd had to develop and become more sophisticated as the volume and complexity of cases ballooned following the enactment of the Human Rights Act (HRA). An excellent search engine became essential as the volume of material grew and as increasingly varied areas of law became touched by the provisions of the HRA. To enhance the value of the site, cases needed to cross refer to one another as similar principles and decisions began to be relevant in different areas of law. References also needed to be made to other relevant resources (eg articles, seminars or other papers) accessible elsewhere on the main 1COR website. The Resources section of the main site at www.1cor.com also contains a large volume of free material, now including podcasts of seminars (one of the first chambers sites to do this).

All of this was and remains free to access, but it is, of course, provided at some cost in time and effort to 1COR. From the start, there was a strongly-held belief in chambers that material on the Human Rights Act and the professional commentaries provided by Rosalind English and other members of chambers played an important role in raising the understanding in the legal and wider community of the significance of human rights law.

The Human Rights Update now contains about 1,000 reports and commentaries on human rights dating back to 1998 when the Human Rights Act was passed. What makes the database unique is that it has been constantly and regularly up-dated for over 10 years, thus providing an unbroken record of cases which very few other free resources can offer. What has made this possible is that it has been a Chambers Academic, Rosalind English, rather than a practising member of chambers who has been charged with co-ordinating the database. The problem with using busy practising lawyers to maintain such services (whether provided by a chambers or a law firm) is, of course, that continuity becomes more difficult to maintain when they get distracted by other matters.

The database still contains summaries and commentaries on cases from domestic courts and the Strasbourg court involving human rights points that demonstrate the impact of the European Convention on domestic law and also explores the practical impact of these cases for practitioners. Not all cases are covered; the value of this resource for practitioners is that the material is carefully filtered. For example, the vast majority of decisions in which human rights arguments play a central part relate to immigration and deportation matters. All but a handful of these simply repeat existing jurisprudence on the relevant Convention rights, articles 3 (prohibition on inhuman and degrading treatment) and article 8 (respect for family and private life). The same applies to planning decisions in relation to travellers; again, most of these reiterate long-existing principles on public interest and proportionality under article 8.

The database will only report and discuss cases if they contain novel points about the application of Convention rights to domestic law or if they provide a useful analysis of other practical issues, such as the hierarchy of precedents from Strasbourg and the higher appellate courts, or the extension of any of the listed rights to a new range of interests. A good example of this is the ongoing litigation concerning assisted suicide which is variously interpreted by Strasbourg as a right to die with dignity, falling within article 8 (Pretty v United Kingdom (2346/02) [2002] 2 FLR 45 ECHR), and by the House of Lords as being beyond the range of interests protected by that article (R (on the application of Pretty) v DPP [2001] UKHL 61, [2002] 1 AC 800). The debate on this discrepancy is covered in R (on the application of Purdy) v DPP [2009] EWCA Civ 92.

Another strength of the Human Rights database is that it links common themes across different practice areas; so, for example, the recent spate of challenges to the policies of education authorities on the wearing of religious symbols do not just concern the reach and scope of the right to religious freedom under article 12 of the Convention. They also involve the right to private life under article 8 and the right to freedom of expression under article 10. The principles at stake – such as the autonomy of schools and employers in a liberal society – are also at issue particularly where the courts come to apply the test of proportionality under the Convention. So these “religious rights” cases are discussed not in isolation but embedded in a general debate about the role of public law in the protection of subjective beliefs, whether they be about hunting, punishments in schools or the right to abortion. Thus a simple search string can throw up a range of cases – from uniforms (R (Begum) v Headteacher and Governors of Denbigh High School [2006] UKHL 15), to foxhunting (Countryside Alliance v Her Majesty’s Attorney General [2006] EWCA Civ 817) and corporal punishment (R (Williamson) v SS Education and Employment [2005] 2 AC 246). The facts are very different but the principles are the same. This is a good example of the importance of the sophisticated search engine which is both quick and intuitive to use.

Where there is a connection between case commentaries in the Human Rights Update to seminars and papers that members of One Crown Office Row have given on a subject, the links that are provided make a whole wealth of material available to practitioners using the site. So, for example, in the discussion on the House of Lords’ ruling that health authorities are under a duty to take all measures to prevent the suicide of mental health patients (Savage v South Essex Partnership Foundation Trust and MIND [2008] UKHL 7), there is a link to the paper written shortly after judgment was handed down by Philip Havers QC (leading counsel for Mrs Savage), and Angus McCullough, junior for the Trust (December 2008). Thus the 1COR website makes available material on cases by the practitioners involved far more quickly than any conventional publication is able to. See also the final note in the commentary on EM (Lebanon) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2008] UKHL 64, referring readers to the seminar given by Neil Garnham QC on the subject on 11 November 2008, “Bleeding Hearts, Hard Cases and Bad Law”.

This resource remains free to use, subject to a simple registration procedure. The site currently has over 14,000 registered users and about 700 of them have signed up for the free email alerter service. Although devised with a domestic audience in mind, a website is for the world and knows no boundaries so we find alerters are regularly being sent all over the world to organisations in eg Australia, Hong Kong, India and Ireland. This is a timely reminder to us all how human rights law is of global and not simply national interest. We find we have created a unique service appreciated by both legal professionals and layman because of the easily accessible nature of its content. It is with some satisfaction that we can now look back and see how that acorn of an idea in 1997 has grown into today’s global oak.

Rosalind English is Chambers Academic at One Crown Office Row. Email rslndenglish@googlemail.com.

Bob Wilson is Chambers Director at One Crown Office Row. Email Bob.Wilson@1cor.com.

Comments are closed