Protecting the Human Rights Act
The Human Rights Act 1998 (‘HRA’) came into full force at the beginning of October 2000. The HRA gives further effect to the fundamental rights and freedoms contained in the European Convention on Human Rights (’ECHR’) by codifying the protections in the ECHR into UK law.
The rights that are protected by the HRA cover several areas and include the right to life, freedom from torture and degrading treatment, freedom from slavery and forced labour, the right to liberty, the right to a fair trial and many other rights that we take for granted. Importantly, these rights apply to everyone, irrespective of their sex; race; colour; language; religion; political opinion; national or social origin; association with a national minority; property; birth; or other status.
The HRA provides the domestic legal framework to ensure that all UK public bodies (such as courts, police, local governments, hospitals, publicly funded schools, and others) and other bodies carrying out public functions comply with the ECHR rights.
This means, among other things, that individuals can take their human rights cases to domestic courts; they no longer have to go to Strasbourg to argue their cases in the European Court of Human Rights. With the HRA in place, rights are increasingly becoming part of the normative framework of our society, meaning that we often do not need to resort to litigation to enforce them. Rights are real, meaningful and are protected here in the UK under the HRA.
Some additional significant points worth highlighting about the HRA are that it:
- Protects vulnerable people, some of whom are targets of popular or media hostility.
- Offers important guarantees of a fair hearing and treatment for people accused or suspected of offences.
- Provides vital safeguards for people detained for compulsory assessment and treatment, for example under the Mental Health Act, to ensure that such detention is proportionate and appropriate.
- Ensures that minorities are protected against unfair treatment resulting from decisions or views of the majority.
The HRA is a UK Bill of Rights (even if it is not referred to as such in public discourse), and therefore, the discussion around introducing a ‘UK Bill of Rights’ and replacing the existing HRA is somewhat misleading. It would be a bizarre outcome if the UK replaced its existing HRA with a ‘UK Bill of Rights’ and the outcome was that UK citizens did not have recourse to the full array of rights that are available for other European citizens.
As such, René Cassin is working to ensure that the existing HRA is protected, and that any changes build upon the safeguards already provided by enshrining additional rights in law, rather than subtracting from them. Legal protection for human rights could be seriously limited by the repeal, amendment or replacement of the HRA.
It is also worth noting that repealing or significantly amending the HRA would be a “legal and political nightmare” in the context of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolution frameworks. Alan Miller, Chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission (SHRC) has stated that “repeal of the HRA could also create a two-tier system of the level of human rights protection within the UK”. Scottish people would potentially enjoy greater rights protection than the English and Welsh if the HRA was replaced by an additional Bill of Rights.
It also goes without saying that making major constitutional changes is a serious matter and not one to be undertaken lightly.
René Cassin therefore urges greater awareness and understanding about the HRA and its benefits for all. Through our participation in the Equality and Diversity Forum (‘EDF’), we were recently involved with preparing a response to the Commission on a Bill of Rights Consultation. If you wish to read the EDF response, please click here. We also prepared our own response, which you can read here. The Commission on a Bill of Rights subsequently went on to launch a Second Consultation in July 2012 and our response to the Second Consultation is available here.
To learn more about the Bill of Rights Consultation, please click here.
The Equality and Diversity Forum will be holding an event 'Rewriting our rights? Human rights and the UK constitution' on 12th November 2012. To learn more, please click here.
Some useful links
- The Equality and Human Rights Commission
- The Equality and Diversity Forum
- Article: 'From the Human Rights Act to a Bill of Rights', by Alexander Horne and Lucinda Maer
- Response from the LSE Human Rights Futures Project
- Response from René Cassin to the Commission on a Bill of Rights Consultation
- René Cassin's submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review
- Bill of Rights and reform of the European Court of Human Rights - a view from Stephen Grosz, Bindmans LLP
- Joint Statement: Strengthening the Protection of Human Rights in Europe
- Podcast of talk by Shami Chakrabarti on the Human Rights Act, March 2012