What is the legal argument?
The PEACE TAX SEVEN are taxpayers with a conscientious objection to contributing to military expenditure through the tax system. They want to pay their taxes in full, while diverting the appropriate proportion of their tax contributions away from military expenditure and towards peace - building and international development.
In previous years there have been a number of attempts to uphold the right to freedom of conscience regarding military tax expenditure, one (in 1993) involving a future member of the PEACE TAX SEVEN, Brenda Boughton.
All of these were rejected by the courts. However, we believe that, since 2nd October 2000, the European Convention on Human Rights under the terms of the 1998 Human Rights Act, has vouchsafed freedom of conscience in a new, direct and specific way. This case is therefore the first time that the right to freedom of conscience has been asserted in these terms, relating to UK tax law on military expenditure. The novelty of the legal situation is the legal basis for this case.
In a word, the legal case the PEACE TAX SEVEN are making is that, in principle, UK law recognises freedom of conscience as a basic human right, in such as way as to empower individual taxpayers to deny the use of their taxes to prepare for war. However, current UK tax policy refuses to recognise this right. We believe that this refusal itself breaches UK law. We are seeking a legally binding declaration to this effect by means of a judicial review in the High Court. Such a declaration would place the UK government under the obligation to take further action to resolve the issue.
Here follows a more detailed outline of our case.
Freedom of conscience is guaranteed as a basic human right by the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)), which was signed on 4th November 1950 by the members of the Council of Europe, including the UK, and ratified by the UK government in 1951, coming into force on 3rd September 1953. Article 9 of the ECHR reads as follows:
Article 9 - Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his [sic] religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
2. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
The standing of the ECHR in UK law has changed slightly since 1953. In 1966, individual UK citizens obtained the right of "individual petition", that is, the right to take a case to Strasbourg. The legal standing of the ECHR is now defined by the 1998 by the UK Human Rights Act (HRA) which came into force on 2nd October 2002. The HRA further facilitates the process of petition by allowing cases relating to the ECHR to be heard in UK courts. Also, the HRA defines the standing of the ECHR in domestic UK law. Section 3 (1) "Legislation" of the HRA reads:
So far as it is possible to do so, primary legislation and subordinate legislation must be read and given effect in a way which is compatible with the Convention rights.
Section 6 (1) reads:
It is unlawful for a public authority to act in a way which is incompatible with a Convention right.
1. The relevant principle enshrined is proportionality - the principle that the exercise and protection of Convention rights by the courts must be proportional to the needs of society. The principle of proportionality offers a defence against the state overriding an individual right through disproportionate action.
We believe that, under the terms of the HRA:
• UK tax policy of compulstory military contribution is incompatible with article 9 of the ECHR, because it denies "freedom of thought, conscience and religion" to an extent which is disproportionate to the actual needs of society.
• This disproportionality in its tax policy brings the UK government into breach of section 6(1) of the Human Rights Act 1998.
• The PEACE TAX SEVEN, and all other war tax resisters, are therefore victims of unlawful action by a public authority.
• The PEACE TAX SEVEN are therefore justified in seeking redress by an application for a judicial review.
• The proper course of action for the High Court in response to this application is to issue a declaration of incompatibility relating to UK tax law and article 9 of the ECHR.
• The proper course of action for the government in response to a declaration of incompatibility is a change in UK tax policy, either by direct action by the relevant Minister (the Chancellor of the Exchequer), or by Act of Parliament.
What we are not saying
1. Firstly, some war tax resisters, including some of the PEACE TAX SEVEN, have previously reserved amounts of tax due, pending assurance that their tax contributions will not be used to fund military expenditure - that is, acts of unaccountable mass violence. We have received no such assurance. Therefore, like many others, we have reluctantly chosen to face prosecution on this issue. We abhor this anomalous state of affairs, and we are bringing this case in order to end it. We are not, therefore, seeking to undermine the law. We do not condone or promote lawlessness. Rather, we are seeking to uphold the law by bringing it to bear on an immoral tax policy which, we believe, has no sound legal basis.
2. Secondly, by bringing this case, we are not expressing any view regarding UK party politics, or the political consequences of UK participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. We believe that the invasion was immoral and abhorrent, and we hold to what we understand as the consensus view of expert legal opinion, that it was in breach of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1441, and thus an act of unprovoked aggression against a sovereign state, contrary to international law as such - in a word, that it was a war crime (see especially paragraphs 11-12 of UNSCR 1441). But these moral convictions are not party political opinions. Moreover, the Iraq war has no direct bearing on our legal case, except as an example of one war to which taxpayers who funded it will justifiably object in conscience - as many did. But our concerns are more basic. We are upholding a fundamental, apolitical human right to freedom of conscience, on behalf of each and every UK taxpayer - those who supported the 2003 invasion no less than those who opposed it. Even those who supported the invasion may feel compelled in conscience to oppose other military actions in the future. Under current tax arrangements, they will have no choice but to pay for them. Our concerns with freedom of conscience transcend any case-by-case judgement of the morality of specific wars. These are, in any case, overruled by current tax policy, according to which, nobody can possibly know which future wars they are currently paying for, still less whether they will support them.
3.Thirdly, by bringing this case we are not seeking to advocate any general principle that taxpayers should only fund policies which they support. Over the years our taxes have already been spent on many peacetime policies which we have opposed as individuals. War is an exceptional case, as it involves the deliberate taking of human life.
Specialist and further queries regarding the legalities of the case should be addressed to Phil Shiner at Public Interest Lawyers
For personal, ethical, constitutional and other arguments in support of the PEACE TAX SEVEN click here.