What price human rights?

THIS WEEK began with a letter signed by more than 50 highly respected lawyers and legal academics sent to The Observer newspaper, warning that Brexit could trigger a human rights crisis across the UK. Amongst the prominent members of the profession who signed the letter were Baroness Helena Kennedy (a Fellow of the WS Society), Sir Paul Jenkins and Lord Lester. The document suggested that the UK’s departure from the European Union may see the removal of fundamental rights from UK law leaving its citizens with a similar level of legal protection to those in the dictatorship of Belarus. The letter’s signatories claimed: “We face the very real threat of a human rights crisis with the UK trading away protections for grubby trade deals with foreign tyrants. We are calling for the EU to make Britain’s membership of the European Court of Human Rights a legally binding requirement for any future free trade deal with the UK”.

MONDAY SAW a packed House of Lords debate the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. 187 members of the House applied to speak in the two-day debate. In a move that surprised many, PM Theresa May made an appearance in the chamber to listen to the contributions. Many lawyers spoke, including the Keeper of the Signet, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, who noted that being number 40 on the list of speakers reminded him that “I was some 45 years outside the European Union and I remember well… some of the service that was done in bringing us into the European Union.” Lord Mackay commented on the Supreme Court ruling that the government could not rely on the royal prerogative to trigger Article 50. He also referred to the criticism in some places that those who sit in the House of Lords are unelected: “I am not the only unelected person in the British Constitution…I want to vote for the Bill not because I am unelected but because the decision is right”.

VOTERS ARE reminded on a weekly basis of the impact of the Supreme Court on UK life. This week saw another newsworthy decision, with Wednesday’s unanimous ruling in favour of the government’s minimum income rule for UK citizens bringing non-EU spouses to Britain. The £18600 minimum income threshold for such British citizens was introduced by Theresa May when she was Home Secretary in 2012 as part of a drive to reduce net migration. Lord Carnwath and his fellow judges held “that the minimum income threshold is accepted in principle”. However the justices also ruled that the current rules are defective and unlawful in relation to the interests of the children involved. The four families who brought the case can still not bring their spouses to Britain and the court agreed the rule had “a particularly harsh effect” on those who had lived or worked abroad and can now not return to the UK with a foreign spouse.

MEANWHILE this evening at the Signet Library the WS Society hosted a unique event: “The Law According to Star Trek”, a conference led by Professor Fabrice Defferrard, author of the book Le droit selon Star Trek.

AN UNUSUAL week in the US, in that President Trump went seven days without criticising the legal profession. Trump did manage to start a minor diplomatic incident with Sweden, after claiming the country had suffered an attack at the weekend. It transpires this was untrue, and based on something the President had seen on the Fox News cable channel. It is an open secret that Mr Trump prefers to get his information from television. Another favourite show is MSNBC’s ‘Morning Joe’, presented by Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman. A lawyer by profession, Scarborough is often vexed enough by Trump’s statements to provide ad hoc legal tutorials on the American constitution on-air. (A particularly trying time for ‘Morning Joe’ was the day after Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior White House advisor, argued “the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions that the powers of the president… will not be questioned.”) Other broadcasters are also onto television as a presidential educational tool: ‘Last Week Tonight’ host John Oliver revealed that his show is paying for advert slots in the Washington area during the breaks on Trump’s favourite early morning networks like MSNBC, CNN and Fox News. The commercials imitate catheter ads, and are presented by an elderly, folksy cowboy, who slips in crucial information, like what the Geneva Convention is, the fact that unemployment rates have fallen, or “not all blacks live in the inner cities.”

THANK YOU to John Wightman WS for his generous donation of an edition of Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Originally published in 1765 as a record of ancient ballads, songs poetry, this work was an inspiration to the literary career of Sir Walter Scott. As a younger man, Scott was inspired by the Reliques to research and publish his three volume The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border in 1802 and 1803. The edition of the Reliques gifted by Mr Wightman is the same edition that appears in the Signet Library’s catalogue of 1805 and must have been one of the first works of poetry in the collection. Alas, this copy was sold in the Society’s great book sales of the later 20th century and, happily, Mr Wightman’s generosity has restored to the library a work that so inspired Scotland’s greatest ever literary figure.

— “Writer”

Writer's Week is not intended to represent the views of the WS Society or its members.