Home > Commentary > What Would Extreme Budget Cuts Mean for the Irish Human Rights Commission?

What Would Extreme Budget Cuts Mean for the Irish Human Rights Commission?

ihrc

The Irish Human Rights Commission (IHRC), set up in 2000 (Human Rights Commission Act 2000) as a result of Chapter 6 of the Belfast Agreement is an independent body, funded by the state, that has a broad function to promote and help to protect human rights in Ireland. Human rights, in this respect, is defined as rights contained in the Constitution, in legislation (such as the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003) and under other international treaties to which Ireland is a party. The vulnerability of the IHRC to budgetary cut-backs has also been much in the news in recent months. As the countdown to Budget 2009 begins to begin it is perhaps worth contemplating what impact budget cuts may have on the IHRC’s capacity to carry out its roles.

This must, of course, begin with an acknowledgment that there are likely to be areas in which rationalisation and budget cuts are necessary. That is a given for effectively all organisations that are publicly funded at the moment. However it is one thing to expect rationalisation in terms of costs such as printing, photocopying, storage etc… and another when it comes to cutting that organisation’s budget to the degree that it is so resource-poor as to be unable to carry out its functions. Many of the IHRC’s functions involve procuring expensive services. In the main, we are referring here to legal services. Legal costs will arise in two of the most important areas of the Commission’s work: commentary on proposed legislation (for which lawyers are regularly hired to write advice) and intervention as amicus curiae in cases concerning human rights issues in Ireland.

If the IHRC is unable to carry out these two functions because of a lack of funds, then its capacity to influence the legislative process to try to make sure the Oireachtas avoids enacting laws that are not compliant with Ireland’s domestic and international human rights law obligations and its capacity to bring all relevant human rights law to the attention of a court in its position as amicus will be greatly reduced.

Creating and cultivating rights-compliant legislative and judicial cultures is vital if we are to continue to move towards full respect of individual rights in Ireland. The IHRC plays an important role in that process. Unreasonable reductions in government budget allocation to the IHRC would seriously jeopardise its effectiveness and, if imposed, will call into question this government’s commitment to the effective protection and promotion of human rights in Ireland.

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  1. GSadlier
    September 3, 2009 at 12:59 pm

    At a time when “quangos” of all stripes are being cut, shouldn’t we be asking the more fundamental question, do we need a Human Rights Commission and if so why?

    The duty to vindicate rights rests with our courts.

    Our constitutional jurisprudence provides ample evidence that this is a responsibility that is taken seriously and discharged with rigger!

    The cases also show that the groups which a Human Rights Commission might be thought necessary to protect have generally been able to assert their rights, in court.

    Since our state was founded, there have been perhaps 2 great scandals where this is arguably not true:

    1. Abuse of children in industreal schools,

    2. Treatment of mentally ill people.

    In neither case, would a commission like the IHRC have been effective because in neither case were the breaches continued because of a misunderstanding (or lack of understanding) of the rights of those involved in official circles.

    The rights of the children in industreal schools to be treated appropriately were given plenty of lip service in official circles.

    Similarly, the language used in respect of mentally ill individuals was that of care and concern.

    What was lacking in both instances was proper enforcement and inspection, e.g. a body which would effectively check to make sure that the standards mentioned in official circles were more than pie in the sky and were implemented in practice.

    As I understand it, this is not something which the IHRC has the institutional compotance or even the mandate to achieve in a systematic fashion.

    The notion that the Commission should advise regarding international obligations which haven’t been ratified into Irish law is also problematic, in this author’s opinion.

    It represents a suttle shift in authority between executive and legislature, which is troubling as a matter of Constitutional principle.

    The notion that the executive can alter the domestic law by means of excession to an international treaty which is not ratified is anathema, to our constitutional order.

    Yetm, by means of the Commission, the executive is in a position to shape domestic law, accomplishing (as a matter of fact) by the back door that which it cannot legally do directly.

    In practice the Government may dominate the legislature but this does not impaire the constitutional principle that each representative in parliament is their on his or her individual merrits and is individually accountable to his or her electorate.

    It is important that the constitutional role of the Oireachtas be maintained, so that the T.D.s will have the option to use it to restrain the executive when or if they choose to do so.

  2. September 3, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    Gerard,

    Of course the duty rests primarily with courts. In fact, I am an (unfashionably perhaps) court-centric person. However, providing for an organisation like the IHRC to act as amicus does not detract from that role. Indeed, as you know, the function of an amicus is in fact to enhance the effectiveness of judicialised processes relating to rights. As for advising re human rights treaties we have not incorporated (we would have ratified them…otherwise they would not be binding), this is the definition of human rights for the purposes of the IHRC as contained in the 2000 Act. Thus, even if there was a “subtle shift in authority” as you suggest it was done by means of legislation and therefore surely your constitutional principle. We are not talking about the executive “alter[ing] domestic law” by ratification of an international treaty. All that ratification does it delineate our international obligations. Bringing those international obligations to the domestic court as persuasive precedent (as the IHRC or indeed any other interlocutor can do) is no more anathema to our constitutional order than is the use of comparative law.

    • GSadlier
      September 3, 2009 at 2:25 pm

      Sorry, I meant ratified but not introduced into domestic law by way of legislation etc. (failure to re-read post).

      The argument that because the Commission derives its mandate from legislation and that therefore the “suttle shift” I mentioned does not occur is fallatious, I mean how far is that principle to be pushed?

      If the legislature passed an enabling law like in Hitler’s Germany (unconstitutional I know) would you really say that the forms of legislative supremicy had been observed and that the substantive aspect was therefore irrelevant?

      Now I accept that the argument about the legislature being separate from the executive is theoretical but “hope springs eternal” as they say and the principle is maintained, if the legislature are given the opportunity to exercise their authority, if they don’t take it, there’s not much to be done.

      As to “friends of the court”, I think their very title exposes the ambiguity of their role, when its shorne of its latin finery!

      These were very rare, traditionally in Anglo-Irish law and I think that their growing importance may have significant implications for the judicial method.

      It would be unfortunate if we were to reach the U.S. position, where you have loads of groups submitting “amecus” briefs which are nothing more than re-enforcement of partizan points of view (a situation which unfortunately already purtains to the ECTHR).

      At that point, our courts will cease to be judicial tribunals and will become undemocratic policy-forming quazi-legislative assemblies.

      On a personal note, I should be sorry if the IHRC’s budget were cut.

      I think that its work has been generally good.

      But I do think there are questions of principle here, which as usual were no where addressed in the Oireachtas debates.

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