Human Rights Act 1998

The Human Rights Act 1998 is an Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom which received Royal Assent on 9 November 1998, and mostly came into force on 2 October 2000. Its aim is to "give further effect" in UK law to the rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights. The Act makes available in UK courts a remedy for breach of a Convention right, without the need to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. It also totally abolished the death penalty in UK law (although this was not required by the Convention in force for the UK at that time).

In particular, the Act makes it unlawful for any public body to act in a way which is incompatible with the Convention, unless the wording of an Act of Parliament means they have no other choice. It also requires UK judges take account of decisions of the Strasbourg court, and to interpret legislation, as far as possible, in a way which is compatible with the Convention. However, if it is not possible to interpret an Act of Parliament so as to make it compatible with the Convention, the judges are not allowed to override it. All they can do is to issue a declaration of incompatibility. This declaration does not affect the validity of the Act of Parliament: in that way, the Human Rights Act seeks to maintain the principle of Parliamentary sovereignty (see: Constitution of the United Kingdom). An individual can still take his case to the Strasbourg court as a last resort.

Historical context

The Convention was drafted by the Council of Europe after World War II. Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe was the Chair of the Council's legal and administrative division from 1949 to 1952, and oversaw the drafting of the European Convention on Human Rights. It was designed to incorporate a traditional civil liberties approach to securing "effective political democracy", from the strong traditions of freedom and liberty in the United Kingdom. As a founding member of the Council of Europe, the UK acceded to the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950. However it was not until Harold Wilson's government in the 1960s that British citizens were able to bring claims in the European Court of Human Rights. Over the 1980s, it was widely perceived that the executive misused its power and that, with movements like Charter 88 (which invoked the 300th anniversary of the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and the Bill of Rights 1689) a British Bill of Rights was needed to secure a human rights culture at home.

When John Major's Conservative government was removed from office after a landslide victory of Labour in the 1997 parliamentary elections, the newly formed government under Tony Blair kept its manifesto promise and incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into law through the Human Rights Act 1998. As the 1997 white paper "Rights Brought Home" stated,

It takes on average five years to get an action into the European Court of Human Rights once all domestic remedies have been exhausted; and it costs an average of £30,000. Bringing these rights home will mean that the British people will be able to argue for their rights in the British courts - without this inordinate delay and cost.

The Conservatives had historically been unwilling to incorporate these rights into domestic law, partly because it felt the common law provided sufficient protection for the rights and freedom of citizens and partly because legal systems in the British colonies did not comply with international human rights standards.

Structure of the Act

The Human Rights Act has two central features. First it places a duty on all courts and tribunals in the United Kingdom to interpret legislation so far as possible in a way compatible with the rights laid down in the European Convention on Human Rights (section 3(1)). The limits to judicial creativity have been much debated but it is now clear that the courts cannot interpret Acts of Parliament in a way that would undermine their clear meaning. Where it is not possible to interpret an Act in compliance with the Convention, a declaration of incompatibility may be issued by the court under section 4, stating how legislation appears to breach human rights. The declaration does not invalidate the legislation, but permits the amendment of the legislation by a special fast-track procedure under section 10 of the Act.

The Human Rights Act applies to all public bodies within the United Kingdom, including central government, local authorities, and bodies exercising public functions. It also includes the Courts. However, it does not include Parliament when it is acting in its legislative capacity.

Stronger provisions exist for the devolved Scottish administration under the Scotland Act 1998, which provides that the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament have no power to do anything contrary to the ECHR.

Despite the fact that the Act states that it applies to public bodies the Human Rights Act has had increasing influence on private law ligitation between invididual citizens leading some academics to state that it has horizontal effect as well as vertical effect (as in disputes between the state and citizens). This is because section 6(1) of the Human Rights Act defines courts and tribunals as public bodies meaning their judgments must comply with human rights obligations except in cases of declarations of incompatibility. Therefore judges have a duty to act in compatibility with the Convention even when an action is a private one between two citizens.

Even though the Act's interpretative instruction to interpret legislation as compatible with Convention rights as so far as is possible in section 3(1) applies only to statute and not common law, it has been argued that section 6 of the Act shows that the only law which should not be subject to human rights obligations is incompatible legislation. Therefore the common law could be developed in a way which is compatible with the Convention in an incremental fashion. However, the Human Rights Act cannot be used to create new courses of action in private law.

Rights protection under the Act

The Act provides that it is unlawful for a public authority to act in such a way as to contravene Convention rights. For these purposes public authority includes any other person "whose functions are functions of a public nature. It also explicitly includes the Courts. Convention rights includes only those rights specified in section 1 of the Act (these are recited in full in Schedule 1). In the interpretation of those rights the Act provides that the domestic Courts "may" take into account the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights.

Section 7 enables any person, with standing, to raise an action against a public authority which has acted or proposes to act in such a Convention-contravening manner. A person will have standing to do so provided they would satisfy the "victim test" stipulated by Article 34 of the Convention. This is a more rigorous standard than is ordinarily applied to standing in English, although not Scottish, Judicial Review.

If it is held that the public authority has violated the claimant's Convention rights, then the Court is empowered to "grant such relief or remedy, or make such order, within its powers as it considers just and appropriate. This can include an award of damages, although the Act provides additional restrictions on the Court's capacity to make such an award.

However, the Act also provides a defence for public authorities if their Convention violating act is in pursuance of a mandatory obligation imposed upon them by Westminster primary legislation. The Act envisages that this will ordinarily be a difficult standard to meet though since it requires the Courts to read such legislation (and for that matter subordinate legislation) "So far as it is possible to do a way which is compatible with the Convention rights.

Where it is impossible to read primary legislation in a Convention compliant manner, the only sanction available to the Courts is to make a Declaration of Incompatibility in respect of it. The power to do so is restricted to the higher Courts. Such a Declaration has no direct impact upon the continuing force of the legislation but it is likely to produce public pressure upon the government to remove the incompatibility. It also strengthens the case of a claimant armed with such a decision from the domestic Courts in any subsequent appeal to Strasbourg. In order to provide swift compliance with the Convention the Act allows Ministers to take remedial action to amend even offending primary legislation via subordinate legislation.

Repeal of the death penalty

The Act (section 21(5)) completely repealed the death penalty in the United Kingdom, effective on royal assent. Previously to this, the death penalty had already been abolished for murder, but it remained in force for certain military offences (although these provisions had not been used for several decades). (The death penalty for treason had already been abolished by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.)

Note that this provision was not required by the European Convention (protocol 6 permits the death penalty in time of war; protocol 13, which prohibits the death penalty for all circumstances, did not then exist); rather, the government introduced it as a late amendment in response to parliamentary pressure.

Notable human rights case law

  • Lee Clegg's murder conviction gave rise to the first case invoking the Act, brought by The Times in October 2000 which sought to overturn a libel ruling against the newspaper.
  • Campbell v. MGN Ltd [2002] EWCA Civ 1373, Naomi Campbell and Sara Cox both sought to assert their right to privacy under the Act. Both cases were successful for the complainant (Campbell's on the second attempt; Cox's attempt was not judicially decided but an out of court settlement was reached before the issue could be tested in court) and an amendment to British law to incorporate a provision for privacy is expected to be introduced.
  • Venables and Thompson v. News Group Newspapers [2001] 1 All ER 908, the James Bulger murder case tested whether the Home Secretary, a politician, was the right person to have the final say on the length of life sentences, or whether this infringed the perpetrators' right to a fair trial. The European Court found on the side of Bulger's killers Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. The 2003 Criminal Justice Act removed much of the power to set sentences previously held by the Home Secretary.
  • A and Others v. Secretary of State for the Home Department [2004] UKHL 56, on 16 December 2004, the House of Lords held in that Part 4 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, under whose powers a number of non-UK nationals were detained in Belmarsh Prison, was incompatible with the Human Rights Act. This precipitated the enactment of the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 to replace Part 4 of the 2001 Act.
  • Amesh Chauhan and Dean Hollingsworth were photographed by a speed camera in 2000. As is standard practice for those caught in this way, they were sent a form by the police asking them to identify who was driving the vehicle at the time. They protested under the Human Rights Act, arguing that they could not be required to give evidence against themselves. An initial judgment, by Judge Peter Crawford at Birmingham Crown Court, ruled in their favour but this was later reversed.
  • Price v. Leeds City Council [2005] EWCA Civ 289, on 16 March 2005 the Court of Appeal upheld a High Court ruling that Leeds City Council could not infringe the right to a home of a Roma family, the Maloneys, by evicting them from public land. The court however referred the case to the House of Lords as this decision conflicted with a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights.
  • In March 2006, the High Court in London ruled against a hospital's bid to turn off the ventilator that kept the child, known as Baby MB, alive. The 19-month-old baby has the genetic condition spinal muscular atrophy, which leads to almost total paralysis. The parents of the child fought for his right to life, despite claims from medics that the invasive ventilation could be living an 'intolerable life'.
  • Connors v. UK, a judgment given by the European Court of Human Rights, declared that travellers who had their licences to live on local authority-owned land suddenly revoked had been discriminated against, in comparison to the treatment of mobile-home owners who did not belong to the traveller population, and thus their Article 14 (protection from discrimination) and Article 8 (right to respect for the home) rights had been infringed. However, there has never been a case where the Act has been successfully invoked to allow travellers to remain on greenbelt land, and indeed the prospects of this ever happening seem highly unlikely after the House of Lords decision in Price v Leeds City Council which severely restricted the occasions on which Article 8 may be invoked to protect someone from eviction in the absence of some legal right over the land.
  • Afghan hijackers case 2006, in May 2006, a politically controversial decision regarding the treatment of 9 Afghan men who hijacked a plane to flee from the Taliban, caused widespread condemnation by many tabloid newspapers (most notably The Sun), the broadsheets and the leaders of both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. It was ruled by an Immigration Tribunal, under the Human Rights Act, that the hijackers could remain in the United Kingdom; a subsequent court decision ruled that the government had abused its power in restricting the hijackers' right to work.


From the Conservative right

The Human Rights Act has faced criticism from the Conservative right:

During the campaign for the 2005 parliamentary elections the Conservatives under Michael Howard declared their intention to "overhaul or scrap" the Human Rights Act. According to him "the time had come to liberate the nation from the avalanche of political correctness, costly litigation, feeble justice, and culture of compensation running riot in Britain today and warning that the politically correct regime ushered in by Labour's enthusiastic adoption of human rights legislation has turned the age-old principle of fairness on its head".

He cited a number of examples of how, in his opinion, the Human Rights Act had failed: "the schoolboy arsonist allowed back into the classroom because enforcing discipline apparently denied his right to education; the convicted rapist given £4000 compensation because his second appeal was delayed; the burglar given taxpayers' money to sue the man whose house he broke into; travellers who thumb their nose at the law allowed to stay on green belt sites they have occupied in defiance of planning laws".

Some commentators have criticised Howard's claim that a prisoner serving a life sentence was allowed to obtain hard-core pornography in prison. In R (on the application of Morton) v Governor of Long Lartin Prison, a prisoner did indeed seek judicial review of a prison governor's decision to deny him access to hard-core pornography claiming that the governor's policy was a breach of his Article 10 right to freedom of expression; however, the claim was actually rejected.

Politicised judges?

One of the major criticisms of the Human Rights Act prior to its introduction that it would result in unelected judges making substansive judgments about government policies and "legislating" in their amendments to the common law resulting in an usurpation of Parliament's legislative supremacy. In the area of judicial review for example the case of R (on the application of Daly) v Secretary of State for the Home Department highlights how the introduction of a proportionality test borrowed from ECHR jurisrudence has allowed a greater scrutiny of the substansive merits of a governments policy meaning that judicial review has become more of an appeal than a review.

A Bill of Rights for Britain?

Howard's successor as Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron, has also vowed to scrap the Human Rights Act if he is elected, instead replacing it with a 'Bill of Rights' for Britain.

In 2007, the human rights organisation JUSTICE released a discussion paper entitled 'A Bill of Rights for Britain?', examining the case for updating the Human Rights Act with an entrenched Bill

Left-wing criticism

In contrast, some have argued that the Human Rights Act does not give adequate protection to rights because of the ability for the government to derogate from Convention rights under article 15 especially in relation to terrorism legislation. Recent cases such as R (ProLife Alliance) v. BBC [2002] EWCA Civ 297 have been decided in reference to common law rights rather than statutory rights leading to the possibility of judicial activism.


Senior Labour politicians have criticised the Human Rights Act and the willingness of the judiciary to invoke declarations on incompatibility against terrorism legislation:

Former Home Secretary John Reid argued that the Human Rights Act was hampering the fight against global terrorism in regard to controversial control orders:

"There is a very serious threat - and I am the first to admit that the means we have of fighting it are so inadequate that we are fighting with one arm tied behind our backs. So I hope when we bring forward proposals in the next few weeks that we will have a little less party politics and a little more support for national security.


See also

External links

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