Human Rights Commission cases restricted by budget cuts

By Colm Kelpie

image copyrightGetty/nito100

The ability of Northern Ireland's human rights watchdog to take legal cases is now severely restricted by repeated budget cuts, it has said.

The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission had to ask for a funding reprieve this year from the Northern Ireland Office in an attempt to bolster its finances.

Its budget is just over £1.1m.

It argues that this figure has been almost halved, in real terms, since 2010.

Chief Commissioner Les Allamby said the commission has been operating within significant financial constraints.

"Within this budget, we are required to provide a range of public services including taking strategic legal cases, providing advice to government on critical issues such as Brexit, carrying out investigations as well as promotion and education," he told BBC News NI.

"Our ability to take strategic legal cases to challenge human rights violations is severely restricted by our budget."

Eight annual budget cuts

Set up under the Good Friday Agreement, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) is an independent body funded by the government through the Northern Ireland Office (NIO).

Among its functions is to initiate cases and provide legal assistance to individuals taking human rights legal challenges.

It has 14 staff members, down from 32 in 2009.

The body said that it has now faced eight annual cuts to its budget, with staff numbers reduced on four occasions.

Les Allamby
Our ability to take strategic legal cases to challenge human rights violations is severely restricted by our budget."
Les Allamby
Chief Commissioner, Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC)

To maintain its current workforce, it warned in its annual report, published in July, that further reductions in its investigation and legal budgets were required.

This, the organisation warned, would mean it would have to seek business case approvals from the NIO, on a case-by-case basis, to secure additional resources before supporting legal cases.

Since then, the NIO has stepped in to provide a funding plug of about £79,000, BBC News NI understands.

But the commission said its funding problem has not gone away.

It said its Supreme Court challenge to the law on abortion in Northern Ireland, which ran for more than five years, cost £225,000.

image copyrightPA
image captionThe NIHRC lost a Supreme Court appeal over the legality of Northern Ireland's abortion law in 2018

Its successful Court of Appeal (NI) challenge to adoption law that discriminated against same sex couples ran for more than four years at a cost of £130,000.

The commission said a budget of £1.63m in 2010 was considered necessary for it to effectively operate as envisaged under the Good Friday Agreement.

When inflation is taken into account, it argues that its budget for 2019-20 should have been set at just over £2m.

"The organisation will continue to take a can-do practical approach to its mandate to protect and promote the human rights of everyone in Northern Ireland," Mr Allamby added.

"To do that, we need a decent financial platform. As a statutory public body, we are obliged to live within our means, nonetheless it would be remiss of us as an organisation not to highlight the difficulties we face in fully meeting our mandate."

In the 2018-2019 financial year, the commission said it received more than 400 enquiries from the public seeking assistance.

The commission granted legal support to three individuals.

The NIO told the BBC that it remained "committed to the ongoing work" of the commission.

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