May 13, 2002UK House of Lords Finalised Northern Ireland Intervenor
The facts of the case
This case was brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (“the Commission”) in order to confirm its power to intervene as a third party. The Commission was set up by section 68 of the Northern Ireland Act of 1998 (“the Act”) with significantly more extensive powers than the body it replaced, the Standing Advisory Commission.
The question of the Commission’s powers arose out of the inquest into the victims of a bomb explosion in Omagh in 1998. The Commission wrote to the Coroner in the case raising the matter of human rights principles in his inquest and stating that it would be appropriate for the Commission to make submissions. Following correspondence and oral submissions as to whether the Commission had power to intervene, the Coroner ruled that the Commission had no statutory power to intervene and that, accordingly, it would not be permitted to do so. The Commission unsuccessfully appealed this decision in 2000.
RSI’s intervention in the case
RSI (then British Irish Rights Watch) intervened alongside Amnesty International and the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) in the Court of Appeal (“the Court”). Analysing the Principles Relating to the Status of National Institutions (“Paris Principles”), as well as the Commonwealth Principles, the Intervenors argued that the Commission’s powers, especially those at issue in the appeal, complied with both sets of Principles. The Paris Principles were developed and endorsed at the UN level in the early 1990s, and are widely accepted as the benchmark for effective national human rights institutions. The Paris Principles clearly state that national human rights institutions should submit to parliament or any other competent body opinions, proposals, recommendations, etc. on any matter concerning the protection of human rights. The Intervenors argued that the attempt of the Commission to intervene to assist the Coroner in the Omagh Inquest fell squarely within the parameters of the Paris Principles.
Additionally, the Interveners submitted that the Commonwealth Principles, drafted based on the Paris Principles, should also provide guidance in determining the role of the Commission. They affirmed that the Commonwealth Principles place additional special emphasis on the importance of creating effective relationships between national human rights institutions such as the parliament, the executive and the courts.
The judgment in the case
The Court stated that the Act did not contain express provisions allowing the Commission to intervene in “proceedings or appear as an amicus curiae even when human rights issues are under discussion.” Additionally, it held that as a purely statutory body, the Commission had only those powers given to it.
Nevertheless, the Court held that it was the intention in the Act to extend the powers of the Commission, whose overarching duty was to “keep under review the adequacy and effectiveness in Northern Ireland of law and practice relating to the protection of human rights.” The Act conferred on the Commission general powers to promote the understanding of human rights law and practice and to review its adequacy and effectiveness. The capacity to make (not a “power to insist on making”) submissions to the Court are incidental to this general power. This difference between power and capacity put the final decision on whether the Commission could intervene with the Court.
What does this mean for our work?
As is illustrated by the numerous cases in which RSI has intervened, the right to third-party intervention in litigation that RSI enjoys is absolutely crucial to the fulfillment of its mission and completion of its work. In 2002, as today, RSI sees the critical role the international human rights community plays in the creation of strong, independent national human rights institutions. This case demonstrates the way that RSI has been able to work alongside its partner institutions to uphold the role of human rights defenders in local, national, and international fora.
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