Ahmad v United Kingdom (1982)

English Constitutional Law

Ahmad v United Kingdom
Image: ‘Mosque Muslim Art Painting’ by Richa Maheshwari

While paving the way for a number of similar ‘religious obligations’ versus ‘convention rights’ cases, this protracted legal discourse reveals a number of indiscretions, that in many respects, served to influence legislative and educational policy in the United Kingdom, and illustrate how laws evolve through the integration of cultural norms and progressive state cohabitation.

After working as a supply teacher within the mainstream schools arena for a considerable number of years, the Islamic applicant took issue with the government, upon grounds that his need (or at least doctrinal requirement) to attend a mosque on Friday afternoons was being denied by statute; and that subsequent operational policy created the violation of a number of constitutional rights afforded to all citizens of the United Kingdom.

Citing art.9(1) of the ECHR (freedom of thought, conscience and religion) and art.14 (prohibition of discrimination), the applicant protested that s.30 of the Education Act 1994 stood in immediate conflict with his need to manifest his religious beliefs every Friday between the hours of 1.30pm to 2.15pm. Having been employed by a number of London Borough schools prior to his decision to resign rather than reduce his working hours, the applicant had been given verbal allowances by one school, and shown strict opposition by another, which bore an inconsistent position of unwillingness to accommodate a religious need, which until recently, had never been expressed nor discussed at the time of his original appointment.

When it was submitted that the repeated failure of a Muslim man to attend a mosque (subject to relative distances) would likely result in a beheading in a country such as Saudi Arabia, the applicant expected that the same principles would apply under  domestic jurisdiction, and that those grounds, along with previous (albeit unofficial) allowances were sufficient enough to warrant time taken from his contractual duties, despite any inconvenience to teaching  staff, pupils or the school as a whole.

After failing to find those arguments upheld in the domestic courts, the matter wound up before the European Commission for Human Rights, where it was unanimously decided that the terms of the Convention were constructed in such as fashion as to allow interpretation and consideration of all religions and beliefs, not just those of the applicant; and yet when willingly accepting a position of employment that brings with it a set of express and implied terms, the accepting individual takes ownership of how that agreement might impinge upon their religious requirements or obligations of faith, and must therefore act accordingly, thus the Commission dismissed the application, while holding that:

“[E]ven a person at liberty may, in the exercise of his freedom to manifest his religion, have to take into account his particular professional or contractual position.”

Birth of the Human Rights Act 1998

Insight | February 2017

Birth of the Human Rights Act 1998
Image: ‘Against Forgetting’ by Marcia Bushnell

The Human Rights Act was brought into being as a consequence of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which was first formulated by the Council of Europe in 1950.

Founded upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (as used by the United Nations), ten countries first rallied for its formation, including Belgium, Denmark, France, Ireland Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The Convention took effect in September 1953, with the primary directive of protecting specific fundamental rights among Member States of the Council of Europe, while the core values of the UK constitution enjoyed presumptions of liberty, representative government and the rule of law.

Before the ECHR became intrinsic to domestic law, Ministers often found themselves abusing discretionary powers, which amounted to a constitution largely beyond reproach, relying instead upon collective political norms for enforcement. This protracted period of neglect gave rise to an increase in administrative jurisdiction, and during the 1980s the courts began to adopt a more concrete conception of the rule of law, preferring instead to propagate such values as ‘freedom of expression’ ‘equality’ and ‘freedom from destitution’. However, presumptions followed that common law infringement upon these values would deem statute intervention unlawful, and it soon became conventional thinking; particularly in the well known R v Secretary of State for the Home Department ex parte Brind, where the domestic courts held that as the ECHR was not part of English law, the government was able to restrict media coverage of Irish extremist groups, despite clear encroachment upon the right to freedom of expression, and a sadly failed appeal by the journalists fiercely defending that right.

In fact, it wasn’t until 1998 that the British constitution accepted that using convention as a means of entrusting civil liberties could no longer be tolerated, and so on 9 November 1998, the Human Rights Act 1998 was enacted by Royal assent. From 2 October 2000 onward, all rights and freedoms previously safeguard by the ECHR were now directly enforceable though UK common law, and the sovereignty of Parliament was agreed.

This upheaval in institutional law was particularly significant, in that for the first time English judicial authority was awarded greater scope for case interpretation, where historically such matters were determined through ministerial debate. This was however, a change that was not without its detractors, nor ignorant of an entrenched inclination to overlook common law in lieu of political fervour.