Amnesty | Human Rights Act FAQ

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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.

Join the fight to protect the Human Rights Act

Amnesty | Hillsborough and the Human Rights Act

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13th November 2016

Hillsborough and the Human Rights Act

What happened at Hillsborough?

On 15 April 1989, thousands of Liverpool fans travelled to Sheffield to see their team play Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup semi-final. Ninety-six men, women and children never returned home.

Before the match was due to start, a huge crowd built up at the Leppings Lane entrance to Hillsborough stadium. With only seven turnstiles to get in, the police opened an exit gate to let more people through.

In minutes, about two thousand fans came through the gate into pens three and four, which were already full. The high fences around the pens, designed to prevent pitch invasions, made it almost impossible for people to escape. A few made it out over the top of the fences or scrambled to safety in the stands above, but most were trapped.

In the chaos, hundreds were injured and 96 people died – the youngest of them just ten years old.

Photo: Chris Brunskill Ltd/Getty Images
Photo: Chris Brunskill Ltd/Getty Images

Soon, a false story emerged that the disaster was caused by the fans’ behaviour. Liverpool supporters were accused of being late, ticketless and drunk, of picking the pockets of the dead, of pushing through the exit gate and of urinating on the police.

When an inquest was held soon after, the coroner reached a verdict of ‘accidental death’.

The families of those who died fought hard to challenge this story. But for two decades, it was accepted as the truth by much of the media, the police, the public and the political establishment.

The Hillsborough families tireless campaigning and refusal to accept the official line led to a second inquest in 2014.

By this time, the Human Rights Act was part of our law – and it changed everything.

How did the Human Rights Act help?

The Human Rights Act protects ordinary people’s rights and freedoms, including the right to life.

This means that if anyone dies at the hands of the state, or because of state failings, the reason for their death must be fully investigated and the findings made public.

The Hillsborough families were able to use the Human Rights Act to ensure that the second inquest had a much wider remit. It meant that the jury had to look at the full circumstances surrounding each death, not just how the person died, and decide whether the actions of the police and ambulance services had played a part.

For the families of those who had been killed at Hillsborough, this meant accountability.

I don’t think we would have got the verdicts in April of this year if it hadn’t been for the Human Rights Act… I think it’s probably one of the most important pieces of legislation that governs rights for UK citizens.” – Becky Shah, who lost her mum Inger

The second Hillsborough inquest was the longest jury case in English legal history, taking two years.

The Human Rights Act helped put the people who had died and their families at the centre of proceedings. They had access to the same documents as the coroner and could use these to direct their lawyers’ questioning.

In the first inquest, the dead had been identified only as numbers. Now, they were presented as people. Family members were called on to speak about the person they had lost, and the impact it had had on those who loved them.

Whether they were a roadsweeper or a financial advisor, we were able to paint a picture… and present to the jury what that person was like… That these people were decent human beings who just happened to follow Liverpool football club.” – Barry Devonside, who lost his son Chris

The second inquest finished in 2016. It revealed major errors in the way the match was planned for, managed and policed. It found that mistakes made by the police had caused or contributed to supporters’ deaths, and it identified errors in how the ambulance service had responded.

Crucially, the jury concluded that the 96 people who died were unlawfully killed, and that the fans were not to blame for what had happened.

If people let [the Human Rights Act] go, we’re lost. We need this kind of system to keep us getting truth and justice for people we lose.” – Steve Kelly, who lost his brother Michael

Why we all need the Human Rights Act

The concept of accountability, the need to discover and tell the truth, affects all of us every day of our lives. We all assume that our life will be uneventful. But some of us get hit by a bus, some of us have family crises, some of have – as did the Hillsborough families – tragedies. That’s when the Human Rights Act acquires new meaning for us. That’s why we need it every day of our lives, and that’s why we would all suffer if the Act disappeared

Elkan Abrahamson, one of the lawyers representing the Hillsborough families

Save the Human Rights Act

Every one of us is protected by the Human Rights Act. It ensures our fundamental rights are respected and allows us to challenge authorities if they violate them. Becky’s world fell apart when she got the news her mum had died at Hillsborough – but she was never given an explanation of what actually happened. A quarter of a century later, The Act helped her uncover the truth. But right now it’s at risk – join the fight to save it.

Help save the Act

Don’t let the Government turn universal freedoms into privileges for a chosen few. Call on the Justice Secretary Liz Truss to save the Human Rights Act.

 

Liberty | Liberty to urge ECC to scrap unjustified PSPO plans

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Liberty to urge Exeter City Council to scrap unjustified PSPO plans

Human rights campaigning organisation Liberty is deeply concerned that Exeter City Council’s proposed Public Spaces Protection Order (PSPO) will criminalise the city’s most vulnerable people.

A consultation into the Council’s plans closes at midnight on 29 February 2016. Liberty intends to respond to the consultation with a detailed analysis of how the PSPO will potentially lead to unjust, counterproductive and unlawful action being taken against homeless people.

As drafted, the Order bans unsolicited requests for money and gives police and Council officers the right to clear away any bedding found in a street in Exeter’s city centre.

The PSPO gives police and council officers the power to issue on-the-spot penalties of up to £100. If those in breach are unable to pay, they could face prosecution and a fine of up to £1,000.

Liberty believes the Order may, if implemented, breach the rights of the people of Exeter under the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights. The Council is bound by the Act not to behave in a way which would disproportionately affect those rights.

Pressure is building on the Council to abandon its plans. Last week comedian Mark Thomas led a protest against the PSPO outside the civic centre. A petition against the criminalisation of rough sleepers in the city has also amassed over 12,000 signatures.

Unjustified, unwanted and unlawful

Rosie Brighouse, Legal Officer for Liberty, said: “Begging and rough sleeping are the result of poverty and it is both ridiculous and counterproductive to slap society’s most vulnerable with criminal records and fines they cannot possibly pay.

“The current proposals are unjustified, unwanted and potentially unlawful. We will be making representations to the Council in due course to express our concerns more fully and urge it to protect the rights of the people of Exeter by scrapping these misguided plans.”

Notes to editors:

Contact the Liberty press office on 020 7378 3656, 07973 831128 or pressoffice@liberty-human-rights.org.uk.

About PSPOs

  • Created in 2014 year by the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, PSPOs enable local authorities to criminalise activities that have a persistent and unreasonable detrimental effect on the quality of life of those in the area.
  • Liberty opposed their creation on the basis that they are too widely drawn, with vague definitions of what can be criminalised and disproportionately punitive sanctions, and would result in the fast-tracking of vulnerable individuals into the criminal justice system.
  • Liberty is campaigning to end the use of unfair, overbroad PSPOs which penalise the most vulnerable in our societies. In June 2015, Liberty wrote to Oxford City Council calling on it to scrap plans to criminalise rough sleepers and buskers. The PSPO was passed in October with the Council making significant concessions.
  • Liberty wrote to Birmingham City Council in July 2015 in opposition to an intended PSPO placing a blanket ban on the use of amplification. In September, the Council dropped its plans.
  • Similarly, Liberty wrote to Cheshire West and Chester Council in October 2015. The Council dropped plans to ban rough sleeping from a draft PSPO in November.
  • Newport City Council radically overhauled its planned PSPO in November after pressure from Liberty. The Council completely removed provisions relating to rough sleeping.
  • Earlier in November, Liverpool City Council abandoned similar plans on the basis that they were simply “a bit daft.”

 

 

 

Liberty | Campaigning against Public Space Protection Orders

 

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Campaigning against Public Space Protection Orders

Begging and sleeping rough aren’t anti-social behaviour – they’re the result of poverty

PSPO

Why are Public Space Protection Orders important?

Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs) are broad powers which allow councils to criminalise particular, non-criminal, activities taking place within a specified area. Unfortunately, we have frequently seen them used against the most vulnerable in our society, the homeless.

PSPOs are also being used to limit freedom of speech and the right to protest.

The power to impose PSPOs was created in 2014, under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act.  At Liberty we opposed their introduction – because they are too widely drawn, with vague definitions of what can be criminalised, and carry disproportionately punitive sanctions.

And we were right. Several local councils across the country have recently introduced – or consulted on – unfair and overbroad PSPOs. A range of measures have been proposed, including a ban on rough sleeping and “aggressive” and “persistent” begging – “persistent” being defined by the authority as begging “on more than one occasion”.

These proposals would restrict rights protected under the Human Rights Act – in particular Article 8, the right to a private and family life, and Article 10, the right to freedom of expression. Article 11, the right to protest and freedom of association, would also be impacted if plans to prohibit the handing out of free leaflets are brought forward.

PSPOs simply fast-track vulnerable people into the criminal justice system – rather than divert them away from it.

If somebody is forced to beg or spend the night in a public toilet, that’s not a lifestyle choice or anti-social behaviour – that’s extreme poverty.  Local authorities should focus on finding ways to help the most vulnerable – not criminalise them and slap them with fines they can’t possibly pay.

“PSPOs criminalise both the most vulnerable and those exercising their democratic right to protest. We urge any Councils considering such Orders to think again.”
Rosie Brighouse, Liberty