When I was younger, I was very taken with the idea of a Charter of Rights for Australia. I simply couldn’t fathom the fact that Australia didn’t have certain rights in its Constitution. But now that I’m older, I’m not so sure that a Charter of Rights is the panacea for all ills in society. I know that human rights are malleable, and that one human right can conflict with another.
For a particularly thorny and controversial case, see The Queen v GJ  NTCCA 20, a case involving an Aboriginal elder and a young Aboriginal girl aged 14 or 15. The girl had been “promised” to the elder when she was a baby, but did not want to marry him, but her grandmother sent her to his house. In the event, the elder was charged of offences including assault (with a boomerang) and sexual intercourse with a child under the age of 16. The trial judge sentenced the elder to one month imprisonment (with a suspended sentence) because he found that the elder was behaving in accordance with customary indigenous law. However, on appeal, this sentence was overturned.
Human rights do not provide a clear answer to a case like this. On the one hand, the elder could be said to have a right to continue to practice his own culture in a society where he made up an ethnic minority. On the other hand, the girl could be said to have a right to be free of inhuman and degrading treatment, and to have her rights treated as equal to any other child, regardless of her race or religion, and not to suffer because of her status as a woman.
I’m thinking about these issues because the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006 (Vic) comes into force in Victoria today. Do I believe in human rights? Of course I do. I think that there should be a certain amount of freedom of speech (whether I agree with what is said or not), and that there should be freedom of religion, and so forth. But I can see that in some circumstances it is not easy. Say there is a group who argue that a certain religious group controls society and that they should be banned from Australia. This is something to which I have a very deep seated revulsion on a personal level. Obviously there is a right on the part of the group to freedom of speech, but there is also a right of the people of that particular religion to be free from vilification and discrimination. How to balance it? I can never quite make up my mind.
Peter Faris QC has written a piece which is extremely critical of the Charter of Rights. He sees it as a gravy train for lawyers, with little real practical benefit for the people.
I am not quite sure that the scenario is quite as dire as Faris QC portrays it. I went to a site for Conservative Lawyers in the UK (a scary concept). There I found a paper by two barristers which outlined the benefits and detriments of the Human Rights Act 1998 (UK) in the United Kingdom. (I had to overcome a personal prejudice – a lifelong dislike of Tories arising from my schooling in England). I found it to be a fair paper. The lawyers made five provisional conclusions:
- There was more uncertainty in the outcome of litigation where public authorities were concerned, particularly concerning the liability of public authorities in tort.
More time and expense is incurred in arguing Human Rights Act points than is probably justifiable, although this is likely to settle down.
There has been some “refreshing” of the common law with arguable benefit in some areas although the common law was generally regarded as being sufficiently dynamic to bring about changes absent the Human Rights Act.
There is greater freedom for judges to make new law in areas where the law is either uncertain or possibly antiquated.
Some cases where claimants would have failed before the Human Rights Act can now succeed. What success means however is still somewhat uncertain. The actual remedies available under the HRA are still a matter for development.
At  of their paper, the barristers conclude:
The approach of the Courts to the Human Rights Act has not perhaps been as radical as some feared. But we do venture to suggest that the effect of the Human Rights Act has been considerable in terms of the way in which public authorities organise their affairs. Whilst much of the evidence is anecdotal and perceived, sometimes, through the possibly unreliable medium of the popular press, there nevertheless seems to us to be a significant body of evidence that in a number of areas public bodies fearful of human rights violations are being unnecessarily elaborate and defensive in their response. This is very much a mirror of what was covered by the all party parliamentary enquiry into the so-called Compensation Culture. There it was concluded that the perception of a compensation culture affected the way people behaved notwithstanding the fact that there was no real evidence of an increase in compensation claims.
I am not against human rights per se, but my fear is that incorporating human rights into legislation may actually mean that governmental bodies try to obfuscate their actions from a fear of potential legal action. I would not be as negative as Faris QC, and I can see some benefits in human rights legislation. However, I cannot help thinking of freedom of information legislation, which has led to governmental bodies trying to increase the amount of material which is “off-limits” and exceptional. The case of McKinnon last year (about which I wrote a post) is an example of the way in which FOI can be manipulated to hide information. Similiarly, I worry that the net effect will be an unsavory one: governmental institutions will attempt to circumlocute human rights rather than upholding them.