23 June 2006

Blair's Speech on 'Rebalancing' the UK Criminal Justice System

The Guardian's website has the full-text of a speech delivered today by the PM, Tony Blair, on reform of the UK's criminal justice system. Personally, I think that, for a speech in the (generally regrettable) genre of 'politician criticises courts (for being soft, activist, impudent etc.)', these remarks are probably a lot more sophisticated and nuanced than average (but then again; the speaker is a lawyer, after all). They do, however, remain a bit chilling to read. Here's a few extracts of Blair's rights & liberties discourse:

"It's no use saying that in theory there should be no conflict between the traditional protections for the suspect and the rights of the law-abiding majority because, as a result of the changing nature of crime and society, there is, in practice, such a conflict; and every day we don't resolve it, by rebalancing the system, the consequence is not abstract, it is out there, very real on our streets.

This is not an argument about whether we respect civil liberties or not; but whose take priority. It is not about choosing hard line policies over an individual's human rights. It's about which human rights prevail. In making that decision, there is a balance to be struck.

I am saying it is time to rebalance the decision in favour of the decent, law-abiding majority who play by the rules and think others should too.

Unsurprisingly, there is a strong desire to (take) refuge in simple explanations and remedies. One is repeal of the Human Rights Act. There are issues to do with the way the Act is interpreted and its case law, which we are examining. But let me be very clear. These problems existed long before the Human Rights Act. Every modern democracy has human rights legislation: and in any event the British Human Rights Act is merely the incorporation into British law of the provisions of the ECHR, to which we have been bound for over half a century.
Besides, in the ECHR, there are countervailing provisions to do with public safety and national security which would permit precisely the more balanced approach I advocate. In addition, of course, Parliament has the right expressly to override the Human Rights Act.

Also, once more, let me be clear. Judicial independence is a foundation stone of the British Constitution and our Judges are rightly respected and admired for their quality the world over.

I am afraid the issue is far more profound: it is the culture of political and legal decision-making that has to change, to take account of the way the world has changed. It is not this or that judicial decision; this or that law. It is a complete change of mindset, an avowed, articulated determination to make protection of the law-abiding public the priority and to measure that not by the theory of the textbook but by the reality of the street and community in which real people live real lives.

Such is the changing nature of that world and the ferocity of those forces, we need to adjust, to reclaim the system and thereby the street for the law-abiding majority. That means not disrespecting civil liberties but re-assessing what respect for them means today and placing a far higher priority, in what is a conflict of rights, on the rights of those who keep the law rather than break it."

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