Human Rights Act FAQs
1. What is the Human Rights Act?
The Human Rights Act is a UK law which protects our human rights. It incorporates most of the rights in European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) – an international treaty created following the World War II, inspired partly by the desire to stop such atrocities happening again. In fact, British legal experts drafted most of it and the UK was the first state to sign up.
The Human Rights Act then came into force in 2000, bringing those rights down from international to UK domestic law. It was meant to weave human rights firmly into the fabric of lawmaking and government, and provide effective protection here at home so that ordinary people would not have to go all the way to the (ECHR).
2. How does the Human Rights Act work?
The Human Rights Act affects the way laws are made and applied. It requires the UK government to explain how all proposed new laws are compatible with our human rights, and existing laws to be interpreted to respect them as far as possible.
It also means human rights must be taken into account by all public authorities – government, councils, courts, schools, anyone responsible for carrying out a ‘public function’ – when they’re making decisions and developing policies that affect our lives. If they get that wrong, you can challenge their decision in a UK court.
In most individual cases, the authority comes to an agreement with the person about how to protect their rights, without going to court. Sometimes this leads to improved policies which benefit entire communities or the country as a whole.
3. Why do we want to keep the Human Rights Act?
Human rights are for everyone and the Human Rights Act protects those rights from abuse by the state in the UK. Being able to hold those in power to account is one of the pillars of our democratic society.
If you’re lucky, you might never be aware of the protection it gives you – that means it’s doing its job and your rights haven’t been abused.
But other people aren’t so lucky and they have relied on the Human Rights Act for everything from keeping their families together, to protect the right to peaceful protest.
The European Convention on Human Rights protects just a handful of rights but it is the Human Rights Act which makes them legal entitlements in the UK. It is extremely worrying that people in power are proposing to cut back on our claim to any one of them.
4. Who is the Human Rights Act for?
Everyone. Large numbers of ordinary people in the UK depend on it every year to make sure their rights are protected against the state.
Not only does the Human Rights Act affect individual cases, those can also lead to a wider change in approach or positive policy changes which can affect thousands of people. Among many examples of individual cases and more ‘systemic’ challenges, it has been used to:
- ensure dignity for disabled people and others receiving care at home
- provide support for a young girl with learning disabilities to get to and from school
- demand investigations into particularly severe violent crimes like rape are done by police in a timely, efficient manner
- make sure a woman fleeing domestic violence wasn’t separated from her children
5. Doesn’t the Human Rights Act give people rights to ridiculous things?
No. Misreporting has led to some incorrect stories about what human rights protections entitle you to.
The Human Rights Act has never been used to force police to give criminal suspects KFC takeaways during a siege, or to give prisoners access to hard-core pornography in prison. These are not sensible interpretations of human rights law, and no UK or European Court ruling has ever led to them.
6. Why am I told that Europe is dictating to us?
The view that the Human Rights Act gives Europe the power to tell us what to do is simply not true.
The Human Rights Act allows people to seek justice in UK courts. If the Human Rights Act was scrapped, you would still be protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, but like before the Act was passed, you would have to apply to the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) to challenge a decision.
Far from bringing power back to the UK, repealing the Act would mean cases would be heard in Strasbourg, instead of in UK courts. Unless it left the Convention altogether, the UK state would still have a duty to ‘abide by’ judgments against it there.
Section 2 of the Human Rights Act does say UK courts have to ‘take into account’ relevant decisions from the ECtHR in Strasbourg (not that they are bound to follow them). That’s because the Human Rights Act incorporates the rights of the European Convention on Human Rights, and the ECtHR oversees this – ensuring the same core minimum standards across all signatory states.
The ECtHR rulings are nothing to do with the EU – it is a regional treaty overseen by a regional court made up of independent judges from all member states, including the UK.
7. Is the European Court of Human Rights constantly ruling against the UK courts?
No. Only 1.8 per cent of cases pending at the Strasbourg Court are against the UK. More than 60% are against Italy, Ukraine, Russia and Turkey. Of the cases which are brought against the UK, only a tiny number even make it over the first hurdle and get looked at in detail.
A handful of controversial cases are often quoted as proving that Europe is dictating to us and therefore the Human Rights Act must go. But the specifics of these cases are often misrepresented.
For example, the case of Abu Qatada made many people feel uncomfortable. But human rights are for everyone, and that includes people we may not like. The ECtHR ruled that Qatada could not be deported to a country where he would not be able to receive a fair trial where evidence obtained through torture might be used against him. The right to a fair trial and the absolute prohibition against torture are both long-standing British principles.
Importantly, even without the Human Rights Act, it is likely that the ECtHR ruling on Abu Qatada would be the same. This is because as a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, the UK could be challenged for violations of the European Convention itself. To avoid this, the UK would have to leave the European Convention altogether – an unprecedented regressive move for a democratic country.