Thursday, April 19, 2012

Abu Qatada: when a deadline isn't dead... or a line, for that matter

Call me old-fashioned, but I've always been a bit of a stickler for deadlines. The 'dead' bit implies a degree of finality, the 'line' bit a sense of clarity. And, as someone whose role involves administering a system filled with statutory deadlines, I'm a dab hand at arguing for their imposition and enforcement.

So, watching the fallout from the Home Office's botch of the deportation of Abu Qatada, I am somewhat shocked by the utter futility of the arguments being deployed.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceLet's start with the appeal deadline. If Sky News are to be believed, the Home Office have misinterpreted the clear, published guidance of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). And there is that nasty little seed of doubt about any midnight deadline, in that what do you mean when you say 'midnight' on any given date. Is it at the beginning, or at the end, of a particular date? It's one of the reasons why train timetables don't tend to include 00:00 departures.

And, whilst I haven't read the guidance myself - life's too short, frankly - if a Sky News reporter can flick through it and conclude that the ECHR is correct in its interpretation of the deadline, my confidence that the Home Office is right is, to put it mildly, low.

If the deadline is 'three months after the date of judgement', and a judgement is delivered on 17 January, then why would the deadline be 16 April anyway? That isn't three months later, and I deeply suspect that, if you asked any random person wandering past the Home Office what the date would be in three months, they'd give you the correct answer.

The other argument is that Mr Qatada's legal team are being somehow underhand in lodging their appeal one hour before the deadline.

Gosh, isn't it dishonourable to adhere strictly to the rules?

But seriously, if you're trying to prevent something from happening to you, wouldn't you use the rules to best advantage, wouldn't you try and string it out as much as you could? And, regardless of what we think of this particular individual, he is entitled to exactly the same rights as we are, including the right of appeal. And that's because we believe that the Government isn't always right.

I expect the ECHR will reach a conclusion in this case fairly quickly, especially given the implications, as it would be potentially applicable across the forty-seven nations within the jurisdiction of the Court.

And if the hoops to be jumped through are too onerous, then the Home Office is at liberty to seek changes, which would be rather more constructive than attempting to pass the buck for its own mistake.

In short, this isn't a point of principle, it's a point of process, as is so much of governance. And if this Government spent more time improving the processes, and less time trying to change things for the sake of looking busy, perhaps we'd all be better off.

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