Blog: The Independent Human Rights Act: why nothing should change
9 Mar 2021
By Stefano Ruis
The UK government is considering whether the Human Rights Act (HRA), which was passed into law in 1998, should be changed. It has set up an independent review designed to establish how the Act works in practice – and also whether any changes are needed.
First announced in December 2020, the review panel has spent the past four months collecting evidence from a wide range of stakeholders. This call for evidence closed on 3 March 2021. Currently, the panel is considering the responses before reporting on its findings in the summer of 2021.
The first mention of this review process can be found in the Conservative party’s 2019 manifesto which said it would “update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government”.
Whilst this commitment did not go as far as former Prime Minister Theresa May’s stated intention, in 2013, to scrap the HRA altogether (something embodied in the Conservatives’ 2015 manifesto) it nevertheless embodies a worrying tendency on the part of the party to seek to dilute the effect of the Act.
The Conservative Party’s repeated threats to the Act have been widely understood by Human Rights law practitioners as an attack on what the current home secretary Priti Patel once described as ‘lefty lawyers and do-gooders’.
But despite the seemingly partisan nature of these threats, the fact is when it was passed into law in 1998 the HRA was approved with overwhelming cross-party support. It has since then been used to improve accountability and drive positive change not only for individuals but also for the benefit of all citizens.
Enacting the HRA made the rights which were already enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights into rights enforceable in UK law. The Act requires the UK courts to take European Court of Human Rights decisions into account and obliges the courts ‘so far as possible’ to read and give effect to legislation in a way which is compatible with the convention rights.
This has not led to the introduction of a ‘human rights culture’ in the UK (as some populist-minded politicians and commentators have claimed) but has simply established a mechanism by which state power can be held to account by individuals.
This is ultimately for the greater good.
Many convention rights require a balancing exercise when considering a tension between the rights of the individual and the interests of the general public but, in practice the purpose of any human rights law must be (to paraphrase Lady Hale) to protect the rights of those whom the majority are unwilling to protect as democracy should value everyone equally even if the majority do not.
Human rights are basic, fundamental rights shared by all human beings. They can be relied upon by the most disempowered and disadvantaged person who comes into conflict with the State.
As lawyers who specialise in bringing claims against State bodies in order to uphold our clients’ fundamental rights, we continue to rely on judicial decisions which have placed the HRA at the forefront in establishing legal precedent. Anything which denigrates the Act should be resisted.