Joint Committee On Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

49.  Memorandum from Immigration Law Practitioners' Association (ILPA)

  The Immigration Law Practitioners' Association has 1,100 members, mostly based in the UK, comprising solicitors, barristers, legal advisers and academic lawyers all specialising in or interested in immigration, refugee and nationality law and practice. The Association responds to government, UK and European parliamentary committees and the Commission on proposed and existing legislation in the UK and the European Union. It carries out research on legal developments and practice.

  1.  The Human Rights Act 1998 is one of the most important pieces of legislation introduced by the last government and provides for human rights to be "brought home" to the UK rather than relying on external jurisprudence.

  2.  The impact of the legislation in personal domestic terms has however been very limited. The cases taken by lawyers, both solicitors and barristers, have not always reflected the needs of individuals both in terms of their personal interests and the wider public interest.

  3.  The Human Rights Commission's terms of reference should be as broad as possible, and should include a roving jurisdiction enabling it to launch wide-ranging investigations into areas of law and practice to assess human rights compliance where it deems that to be appropriate, rather than having to wait for a complaint to be made to it. The terms of reference should also ensure that the Commission has real teeth to ensure that public bodies have to carry out its recommendations/findings.

  4.  The current level of expertise amongst lawyers, both practitioners and within the judiciary, is limited and, of necessity, geared very much to examining the cases that are brought before them or to their attention rather than considering the impact of the legislation and the effect on human rights in the broadest sense and at the widest levels. A Human Rights Commission should look not only at particular cases that were being advanced but should be able to examine those cases in terms of a wider public interest, considering change and amendment to current practice to ensure that rights existed not simply on paper.

  5.  Although there are already bodies which monitor and attempt to ensure compliance with human rights, these bodies are by their very nature subjected to the constraints of their own spheres of expertise and activity. Immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers have no statutory body to speak for them. They are vulnerable people who face great obstacles in defending their rights and, unlike minorities, they have no Commission to which they can turn. Voluntary organisations, no matter how good they are, cannot speak with the same authoritative statutory voice. A Human Rights Commission should enable consistent and comprehensive development of theory and practice, monitoring and change.

  6.  The ability to draw together expertise from all sectors would help to ensure that all aspects of human rights within particular areas of legislation and policy would be covered. The limitations for existing organisations in their ability to deal with wider areas would thus be overcome.

  7.  Immigration and asylum is an area of policy in which Government anxiety can lead to the taking of exceptional measures which infringe human rights. A watchdog is urgently required to advise Parliament both when any such measures proposed are disproportionate to the Government's stated objective in any given situation and as to the legality of any such policy objective itself.

  8.  Furthermore, immigration and asylum, which is the area with which ILPA is particularly concerned, is not a single area of law in human rights terms. Immigrants and refugees are affected by issues of health, education, liberty, trial hearings, family, employment, discrimination, housing and children to name just some areas. ILPA has developed extensive experience and expertise over the years. Our knowledge of immigration and asylum law and its impact on individuals and communities results in a conviction that there is a need for a Commission that is able to address all of these areas in an holistic and constructive manner. The extent to which fundamental human rights issues are engaged can only be legitimately and comprehensively addressed by a Human Rights Commission to advise, raise public awareness and be an expert resource to Parliament.

  9.  Proposed changes to existing legislation should be scrutinised by a Commission that is able to consider not only the effect on particular potential areas of conflict but in the context of human rights as a whole, including the effect on individuals and communities. In the last decade immigration and asylum legislation has been more amended than perhaps any other area of law and yet it is an area with some of the most far reaching effects in terms of interpersonal relations for both families and communities. It is essential, in order to attempt to prevent conflict in the future, that the human rights aspects and consequences of legislative changes are examined prior to presentation to Parliament.

  10.  A major task of the Commission should be to ensure that potentially uninformed public opinion and tabloid excesses do not cause policy changes or the implementation of legislative change. This is essential in the frequently hostile "political" climate in which immigration and asylum issues are debated.

  11.  The educational role to be played by a Commission must ensure an awareness of rights and responsibilities away from the glare of legal points scoring which can result from issues being brought into the public domain only through court cases.

  12.  ILPA is accordingly of the view that a Human Rights Commission, sufficiently empowered to bring about change as a result of its deliberations, would be of benefit in the implementation of the Human Rights Act and the ethos engendered of bringing rights home.

12 July 2001

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