A Bolivian student won his fight against deportation from the UK because he had a pet cat.
This was the example used by Home Secretary Theresa May last week to suggest that the Human Rights Act “needs to go”.
In fact, the student did not win his case on the grounds that deportation would breach his human rights, but the faux pas has once again ignited the debate about the merits – or otherwise – of the legislation.
We’ve all heard the bizarre stories of the Human Rights Act in action. There was the prisoner who claimed that appearing in court wearing a prison-issue jumpsuit was a breach of his rights so a taxi was sent 60 miles to pick up a clean set of his own clothes.
The Evening Telegraph also reported on the case of a teenager who saw an Asbo application to ban him from wearing hoodies and low-slung trousers thrown out of court because it infringed his human rights.
More recently, councils in north Northamptonshire have reported problems evicting nightmare neighbours from council houses because tenants have fought eviction under the Human Rights Act and courts have upheld their right to a home.
In Kettering, for example, there were 117 complaints of anti-social behaviour last year regarding council tenants but it only succeeded in evicting seven of them.
Head of housing at the council John Conway told the Evening Telegraph: “There are a small number of very serious cases where we have not been supported by the courts.”
So is the Human Rights Act working or does it need to be reformed?
Kirstie Best is a senior law lecturer at the University of Northampton with a specialism in human rights. She said: “I am in favour of keeping the Human Rights Act.
“With respect I think Theresa May got the law wrong and the case she was referring to as evidence of how the act emphasises the rights of ‘undesirables’ was not in fact about the Human Rights Act. The decision that the judge made was based on freedom of movement within the European Union.
“I think the legislation does work in its current state but one of the things people don’t understand about the act is it’s based on the European Convention on Human Rights which was drafted primarily by British lawyers. It is very British in its inception.
“I wonder whether there is an issue with media reporting of the act.
“Sometimes cases are misunderstood in how they are reported and the case becomes an urban myth.
“I cannot see the point of replacing it with a British Bill of Rights because the decisions being made in relation to the Human Rights Act are made by British judges and we would simply be replacing like with like.
“The act has been a good thing because it has led to decision-making being more considered and it requires public authorities to take into account proportion-ality and respect for individual rights.
“There will be times when a judge makes a decision that will be open to disagreement but that is open to appeal through the courts.”
Manoj Sandhu, a law lecturer at Tresham College, agrees. He said: “It is an irrelevant debate because even if we got rid of the Human Rights Act we are still subject to the European Convention on Human Rights and for us to get away from that we would have to leave the EU.
“It is judges’ interpretation of the act that is causing problems. I think the legislation has been a good thing but it has been misused.
“It is like data and statistics – it can be manipulated to your benefit. What academics are saying is those who are using it every day in court are not following it in the way it was designed for.”
So what about the now infamous cat deportation tale?
The case dates back to 2008 when a Bolivian student claimed he should not be deported because he could show he had a proper, permanent relationship with his girlfriend.
In the original ruling the judge made reference to various examples of the life they had built together, including their “joint acquisition” of a cat, Maya, which he said “reinforces my conclusion on the strength and quality of the family life that appellant and his partner enjoy”. The judge allowed the student’s challenge to deportation using Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The Home Office challenged the ruling, but the higher tribunal also allowed the man to stay.
Its judgement, which superseded the earlier decision, had nothing to do with the cat.
It said the Home Office had failed to follow its own immigration rules for settled unmarried couples who have been together at least two years which state an individual should not normally be deported if the relationship is clearly genuine and long-lasting.