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Report from: Lady Hale: Human Rights and Social Justice

Lady Brenda Hale. Source: The Guardian
Lady Brenda Hale. Source: The Guardian
Lady Brenda Hale. Source: The Guardian

In 2004, Lady Brenda Hale became the first and only woman to be appointed as Lord of Appeal in Ordinary in the House of Lords. In 2009, she became the first female Justice in the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom. Four years later, in 2013, she was appointed Deputy President of the Supreme Court. Unsurprisingly, Lady Hale, with her remarkable career and strong personality, drew a large audience to her Festival of Ideas talk last week on the topic of ‘Human Rights and Social Justice.’

The talk centered around the theme of human rights and how they can encompass socio-economic rights. Hale began the talk with a brief introduction on her childhood, she was born around the end of WWII, a time where new strands of social justice were beginning to appear. Hale highlighted the ‘national and international strands’ of social justice in the post-war welfare state. During the 1940s the emergence of a national strand of social justice took place in the fields of education and healthcare. There was the right to universal education, implemented through legislation such as the Education Act of 1944, where free secondary education was granted to all children. On top of this was national assistance for those in need and free healthcare under such organisations as the NHS, all of which amounted to greater social justice across the country.

Hale referred to the post-war period as being a time where the “community looked after those who could not look after themselves.” She expanded on this definition by exploring the international strands of social justice. This was the emergence of “freedom of expression, freedom from fear and the supremacy of human rights everywhere.” These principles of social justice and freedom were upheld and protected in intergovernmental organisations such as the United Nations. In particular, Hale referred to Article I of the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. She referred to this Declaration as “a magna carta for all people everywhere,” emphasising the emergence of social justice on an international scale. The UK was one of the first countries to sign the Declaration and was regarded as being ‘the land of the free’ around this time, with the view that “everything is permitted as long as its not forbidden.”

The talk then moved on to the topic of the European Union, something that the audience were keen to hear about given the upcoming referendum later this month. Hale stated that the European Union protects Blackstone’s principles of rights, such as the right to social mobility, protection of property and the right to freedom. According to Hale, the European Union does not protect the rights set out in the The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that is adopted into the United Nations. This Covenant states that every individual is free to enjoy their social, economic and cultural rights, or in other words, their socio-economic rights.

Hale went on to explore cases where the socio-economic rights of individuals had been protected. She referred to the South African Constitution and the case of Government of the Republic of South Africa v Grootboom in 2000. This case involved two sections of the Constitution, section 26: the right to adequate housing and section 28: children’s right to shelter. The case challenged the state’s failures to provide either of these rights to a community who had been evicted from their informal squatter settlement in Wallacedene. The case resulted in the Court ordering the state “to devise, fund, implement and supervise measures to provide relief to those in desperate need.

The topics of education and taxes were then brought forward by Hale. She believes that there should be non-discrimination in access to education and that education serves “broad and social functions.” She believes that the controversial Bedroom Tax is undemocratic and that it should be removed. She finished by stating that social justice includes “equal treatment” and a measure of “re-balancing the gap between the rich and poor.” The Bedroom Tax does not fit with this definition.

Questions were then handed over to an eager audience. Hale was asked about her opinion on residents in Northern Ireland “being denied their human rights to abortions.” Hale said that she had been challenging the NHS’s refusal to fund abortions in Northern Ireland, and that she felt it was very important to have a woman on the case, stating, “I’m the only one available.” One member of the audience asked about the European Court of Human Rights. Hale stated that it is possible to leave the European Union and still remain in the European Court of Human Rights, she believes that the government’s proposal of a British Bill of Human Rights, “will not protect any less than the current set of rules.” She went on to explain the importance of human rights and how all officials have to act in accordance with them. Additionally, common law protects some of our basic rights but cannot protect us against parliament as it is sovereign.

The questions then became more personal, with one audience member asking Hale to identify a case that she was proud of being involved in. There were two cases that Hale spoke of, the first being ZH (Tanzania) this case set new rules for officials when deciding whether or not to deport a person. It ordered officials to give great weight to the person’s children and how the decision will affect them. Secondly, the Yemshaw case in 2011 where the Court ruled that domestic violence isn’t just physical violence, it includes other means of violence that can directly or indirectly cause harm to an individual, such as threatening or intimidating behaviour. Hale explained that “violence means more than getting hit.”

Overall the talk prompted great discussion from the guest speaker and audience members. There were times when it was difficult to keep up with this discussion, the complex terminology used when exploring these court cases made you feel a bit out of your depth if you weren’t a law student. Nonetheless, it was a fantastic opportunity to hear about human rights and social justice from someone whose whole working life has revolved around these topics. Hale concluded the event by saying that human rights have been part of the UK since 1953 onwards, yet it wasn’t until 1998 that they became part of our culture, a culture that she believes everyone can buy into.