Amidst all the excitement here in Victoria, I’ve been neglecting overseas developments. Two cases this week are interesting in the light they shed on the positive obligations in the Charter. At the Protecting Human Rights Conference, I called for the repeal of some nineteen sections of the Charter, including the definitions section. The latter call was a touch painful, because although nearly all the definitions in Charter s. 3 are bad, there is one important but neglected one:
3(1) In this Charter-… act includes a failure to act and a proposal to act
The only Charter provision that uses the word ‘act’ (in its non-statute sense) is the conduct mandate:
38(1) Subject to this section, it is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way that is incompatible with a human right or, in making a decision, to fail to give proper consideration to a relevant human right.
This section accordingly sometimes make it unlawful for a public authority to do nothing. I suspect, though, that even without Charter s. 3, the conduct mandate would oblige the government to act in certain situations. The extent of those obligations is quite interesting.
In one case being argued this week before the United States Supreme Court, the issue concerns the obligations of governments to promote free expression by weird-sounding religious groups. One such groups of oddballs, the Fraternal Order of Eagles, likes to donate massive stone monuments of the Ten Commandments for display in public parks. One of its monuments has been duly displayed in a public park in Pleasant Grove, Utah for the last thirty-eight years. The plaintiffs before the Supreme Court are another group of oddballs, Summum, who want the agency running the public park to accept their donated stone monument containing these Seven Aphorisms:
- SUMMUM is MIND, thought; the universe is a mental creation.
- As above, so below; as below, so above.
- Nothing rests; everything moves; everything vibrates.
- Everything is dual; everything has an opposing point; everything has its pair of opposites; like and unlike are the same; opposites are identical in nature, but different in degree; extremes bond; all truths are but partial truths; all paradoxes may be reconciled.
- Everything flows out and in; everything has its season; all things rise and fall; the pendulum swing expresses itself in everything; the measure of the swing to the right is the measure of the swing to the left; rhythm compensates.
- Every cause has its effect; every effect has its cause; everything happens according to Law; Chance is just a name for Law not recognized; there are many fields of causation, but nothing escapes the Law of Destiny.
- Gender is in everything; everything has its masculine and feminine principles; Gender manifests on all levels.
According to Summum, these are the real message Moses wanted to bring down from Mt Sinai. He was all ready to do so when he noticed the Golden Calf, raced back up the mountain and came back with a dumbed-down translation in the form of the decalogue of depressing and turgidly expressed ‘Thou Shalt Nots’ on the Eagles’ monument. Kinda like the difference between the Consultation Committee’s draft of the Charter and the version that got enacted after the meddlers did their bit. Summum’s case is that the Pleasant Grove City Council is obliged, if it is going to continue to display the Eagles’ version, to also display Summum’s, lest it commit the sin (and First Amendment infringement) of content-based regulation of public speech. The Council’s response is that the Eagles’s monument isn’t public speech, but rather government speech, which can reflect the government’s views. That’s a pretty dicey argument to make in the US, where the government is barred from establishing a religion. Not so scary here for the Victorian government. The appeal is from a 10th Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Sunnum’s favour.
The other case, In Re E (a child)  UKHL 66, decided today by the House of Lords, concerns the limits to the government’s obligation to protect people from things that they have a right against, specifically the European equivalent to this Charter right:
10 A person must not be-… (b) treated or punished in a cruel, inhuman or degrading way
The case concerned a horrific Belfast saga back in 2001, where loyalists in a North Belfast neighbourhood targetted Catholic children walking to and from school down Ardoyne Road, which passes through a Protestant estate in a predominantly Catholic area. There was no challenge to the police’s initial step of banning kids from the road altogether. Rather, the case concerned their longer term strategy:
When the new term commenced in September the police had been able to consider what strategy they would follow and what expedients they might adopt. A decision was made by them that their overriding priority was to do everything possible to enable the parents to take their children to school on foot along Ardoyne Road…. The expedient adopted was to station police and military vehicles along both sides of the road, creating a corridor through which the group of children and parents could walk. Police and soldiers were deployed on the protesters’ side and escorting police officers carrying long shields accompanied the group to protect them from missiles. This tactic proved successful, to the extent that no injuries were sustained by any children.
It was argued and accepted that this tactic, while protecting the kids’ lives, still exposed them to degrading treatment. At issue was whether the police should have done more to protect the kids, by barring the protesters from Ardoyne Road altogether.
The House of Lords unanimously dismissed the appeal, ruling that the positive obligations to protect are not co-extensive with the negative obligations to not limit rights:
The police view was that only a negotiated community solution would end the protest, a view shared by Government ministers. The efforts made to achieve this eventually bore fruit and the protest was ended and not recommenced. Acceptance of the validity of proceeding in this manner is not merely deferring to the police view, although it would be quite proper to accord a measure of discretion to them as a body with expertise in handling matters of public security… The police had such responsibility and were uniquely placed through their experience and intelligence to make a judgment on the wisest course to take in all the circumstances. They had long and hard experience of the problems encountered in dealing with riotous situations in urban areas in Northern Ireland. The difficulty of catching and arresting malefactors who had means of retreat available through paths and gardens are self-evident. The police had available to them sources of information about what was happening in the community and what was likely to happen if they took certain courses of action, which they were experienced in assessing. In my judgment the evidence supports the overall wisdom of the course which they adopted. The assertions made by the appellant and NIHRC that they might possibly have adopted more robust action are in my view quite insufficient to establish that the course adopted was misguided, let alone unreasonable.
Lord Carswell relied upon the main European precent, Osman v United Kindom  ECHR 101, on positive rights obligations, which held, in relation to a similar obligation flowing from the right to life:
For the Court, and bearing in mind the difficulties involved in policing modern societies, the unpredictability of human conduct and the operational choices which must be made in terms of priorities and resources, such an obligation must be interpreted in a way which does not impose an impossible or disproportionate burden on the authorities. Accordingly, not every claimed risk to life can entail for the authorities a Convention requirement to take operational measures to prevent that risk from materialising. Another relevant consideration is the need to ensure that the police exercise their powers to control and prevent crime in a manner which fully respects the due process and other guarantees which legitimately place restraints on the scope of their action to investigate crime and bring offenders to justice, including the guarantees contained in Articles 5 and 8 of the Convention.
The ‘due process’ restraint mentioned in Osman is of no small relevance to the current challenge to SSOMA, which the government justifies in part by the conflicting obligations imposed by Charer s. 17(2):
17(2) Every child has the right, without discrimination, to such protection as is in his or her best interests and is needed by him or her by reason of being a child.
Both Osman and today House of Lords case are likely to be very significant in interpreting the meaning of ‘protection’ in Charter s. 17(2).