More on the Human Rights Act

Since 1953 when the European Convention on Human Rights came into force, UK citizens seeking legal remedies in the event of a breach had to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

This changed with the UK Human Rights Act of 1998, which gave legal effect in the UK to the fundamental rights and freedoms contained in the Convention. The Act came into force in October 2000. Cases can now be brought to a court or tribunal in the UK.

Taking legal action

Where you believe your rights have not been respected and you cannot resolve the problem outside courts, you are entitled to bring a case before the appropriate court of tribunal.

Before taking legal action, it is advisable to take advice. You can get this from a Citizens Advice Bureau, a Community Legal Adviser or a Law Centre.
The Human Rights Commission also publishes an easy to read leaflet that tells you how to proceed with a claim and what remedies are likely to be available.

If you don’t get satisfaction from a UK court you are entitled to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Public bodies have to comply

Under the Act it is unlawful for a public authority such as a central government department, local government or police authority to breach Convention rights, unless an Act of Parliament meant that it could not have acted otherwise.

UK law to be compatible

All new laws passed by Parliament have in principle to be compatible with Convention rights. And all public bodies have to ensure their decisions do not breach Convention rights.

Will the Act please everybody? Not all the time. We won’t all agree, for example, on privacy, freedom of expression, victim’s rights. But the Act should ensure that there is a proper debate and that rights are respected in a balanced way.

It is up to the courts to ensure proportionality. For example if the police want to ban demonstrations or marches, they won’t be able to impose a blanket ban. The police will be allowed to go no further than guard against risks to others they could reasonably anticipate.

Courts will not be able to overrule Parliament. But courts, based on individual cases, will be able to develop the law in line with Convention rights.

Assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland, and the Scottish Parliament can be overruled by courts if they make any laws that don’t fit with the Convention.

UK Bill of Rights

An independent commission was set up in March 2011 to consider the case for a UK Bill of Rights. Such a Bill of Rights would not replace the Convention rights but would incorporate and build on them. It might in time replace the Human Rights Act.

The UK is unlike most other democratic states in Europe in not having its own fundamental charter of rights enjoying constitutional protection. Some people think a UK Bill of Rights should enshrine the right to jury trial. And that it should include responsibilities as well as rights, for example the responsibility to pay tax.

In August the Commission published a consultation document and received 900 replies by the close of the consultation on 11 November 2011. The Commission will analyse the response and produce a report at latest by December 2012.

The Commission produced its report on December 18, 2012 but failed to reach consensus.  In February 2013 the UK government put plans for changes to the Human Rights framework on hold because of lack of support in Parliament.

The background to the setting up of the Commission is the dissatisfaction at Westminster over the European Court of Human Rights’ ruling against the UK’s blanket ban on the right of prisoners to have the vote.

The Court is seen to need to become more efficient and restrict itself to important cases. It has a huge and growing backlog of applications that currently number 155,000. The UK will be pressing that member states rather than the ECHR should have primary responsibility for protecting human rights.

The Commission will advise the government on the reform of the European Court of Human Rights which is now in progress. The UK holds the chairmanship of the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers and in April 2012 published its proposals as the Brighton Declaration.

The reforms will see fewer cases being considered by the Court, with trivial cases thrown out to allow more time for serious ones. The time limit for claims to be considered will be reduced and the selection process with judges improved. The right of individual petition is safeguarded.

Wearing religious symbols at work

The European Court of Human Rights ruled (January 14, 2013) that a British Airways employee suffered discrimination over her Christian beliefs when she had been banned from wearing a cross at work. The court view was that a discreet cross would not have adversely affected BA’s public image and said British courts had failed to balance the competing interests in the case adequately.

See a full report of the ECHR case

Prisoners' voting rights

In April 2011 the European Court rejected the UK government’s appeal against the ruling. In May 2012 it was given six months to comply with the ECHR judgment but ministers will have the discretion to decide whether certain groups of serious offenders are excluded.

The six month deadline expired on 23 November 2012. One day before its expiry the UK government published the draft Voting Eligibility (Prisoners) Bill which will be examined by a Joint Committee of MPs and Peers. They are to consider three options: 

   ◊  Maintain the current ban on all convicted prisoners voting
   ◊  Allow prisoners sentenced to less than six months prison to vote
   ◊  Allow prisoners sentenced to less than four years prison to vote

Following the publication of the government's draft bill on November 22, 2012, the Council of Europe warned the UK (December 10, 2012) that defying the Strasbourg judgment on prisoners' voting rights would break its human rights commitments and its international legal obligations. Nevertheless it gave the UK a further nine months to sort out the controversial issue.

October 16, 2013. The Supreme Court dismissed appeals from two prisoners who had sought the right to vote under EU law and whose appeal to the ECHR had been upheld.  The Supreme Court ruled that EU law did not provide for an individual the right to vote. So although the UK's ban on voting is in breach of European human rights law, equally ECHR rules that eligibility under EU law is a matter for national participants.   

In December 2013 the Joint Committee of MPs and Peers made the following recommendations:

  • Parliament should comply with the ECHR 2005 judgment made in the case of prisoner Hirst by enabling legislation that would confer voting rights on some prisoners;
  • That there would be a 12 month threshold for convicted prisoners to be enfranchised;
  • That consideration be given for prisoners be given the right to vote as they near the end of their sentences;
  • A bill incorporating these recommendations be brought forward in the 2014/2015 parliamentary session.

See a full chronology of this issue

For more information see
Government, citizens and rights - Your rights and the law

The Human Rights Act