Jonathan Cooper OBE

How did you get started in the law? Did you take a law degree?

No. I did history at Kent. My first job after university was as AIDS co-ordinator for the Haemophilia Society in the mid to late 1980s, just as the issues affecting people with haemophilia and HIV were at their most extreme. It’s difficult to imagine now, but most of the people I was working with were frightened. People would whisper about their HIV status or that of a member of their family or a friend. We were running a campaign for compensation. This was the work of just two of us employed in the office – the director, David Watters, a really solid voluntary sector campaigner, and me.

That was your introduction into law?

That was how I realised both the strength and the weakness of law. I saw the potential of law, but where people did use it, they rarely succeeded. There were terrible stories from those who consulted us – things like a woman finding herself pregnant and suddenly being told she had HIV and being immediately pressurised to have a termination and be sterilised. I realised that the weakness of the system of government in this country was the lack of any kind of rights framework. Without planning to do so, I became a rights activist. The lack of a framework of rights showed the weakness of the common law and administrative law. People were left without any language of rights to articulate their grievance. Towards the end of my time at the Haemophilia Society we started to draft a declaration of rights for people with HIV and AIDS. Through that, I became familiar with rights documents like the Universal Declaration, the European Convention and the International Covenant.

Where did you train?

I did my diploma at City and then went to the Inns of Court Law School. To be honest, I took it one step at a time. I wondered about going back into the voluntary sector after the conversion course but I decided to keep going.

Where did you do pupillage?

Here, at Doughty Street and also at Cloisters. There were very few of us interested in human rights at that time and during and after my pupillage, I continued to work on human rights issues. For example, I undertook a consultancy for the Institute of Public Policy Research on how to implement human rights without incorporating the European Convention which was an idea being explored at the time. After pupillage, I practised for a bit from Doughty Street but I started to get more interested in the public policy side of human rights. I went to Liberty as its legal director for a short time and then came to JUSTICE to head up its project on human rights. This was just after the 1997 election. We knew that there would be a Human Rights Act and we worked on the bill and then its implementation. We had a lot of contact with the politicians like Jack Straw who were in charge of the process.

So, ten years on, how would you assess the effect of the bill and the process of its passage?

I was totally naïve about the issue of religion. Many of the church and faith groups were really hostile and wanted exceptions for themselves. We worked to limit them. In the event, we got section 13 in its current form. Actually, the exceptions do not come to much. This is equally true of the provisions about freedom of speech, though I think it is probably good to have that one there. I have always been a supporter of the scheme of the Human Rights Act (HRA). I never had any issue with the scheme of the bill. I do believe, however, that the ultimate goal should be an entrenched bill of rights. If I was drawing up my own scheme, I would take the politicians out of it and give ultimate power of construction to the courts.

What is your view on how the judges have fared in implementing the Human Rights Act?

They crucially got it right in their approach to proportionality and in terms of requiring proper review of government policy and action. Decisions at the highest level have, overall, been good. I do not think that the lowest courts have made the most of it and have missed opportunities. The courts have not done much that has surprised me. They have acted very constructively in their approach to national security issues. There has been a problem about the narrowness of their interpretation of the scope of the Act in their construction of the meaning of ‘public authority’. They have, overall, got caught up in the old common law school approach to judicial review. It is the courts not really engaging in the constitutional issues that the HRA is all really about. Human rights should not become limited by this kind of intellectual exercise.

And your favourite judges?

No surprise here. Hale, Bingham and Steyn.

You did a lot of training at JUSTICE as well as lobbying?

Yes. I like that. We did loads in the two year period just after the Act received Royal Assent, before coming into force – from the then Lord Chancellor’s Department to the then Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. I also did a lot of writing and a few third party interventions – for example, Brown and Leonard Cheshire.

And you have kept up the training.

Yes, both in this country and abroad. I had always had an interest in Europe. The creation of the New Europe opened up major opportunities for training. It has always been a very small core of people involved in this and I have done a lot – particularly in the countries of the former Yugoslavia and Turkey. I have become a strong advocate for the latter’s membership of the EU.