Human Rights Act 1998
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The Human Rights Act 1998 is an act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom which actually came into effect in the year 2000. It basically means that all laws of the United Kingdom, before and after the passage of the act, must be interpreted in light of the obligations under the European Convention of Human Rights. It has affected how almost every public body in the country is run, and is widely criticised from the political right and narrowly criticised from the political left. It is also one of the vanishingly few things that Tony Blair got right.
As Britain had already signed up to the European Convention on Human Rights, the rights found this act already technically applied to the United Kingdom. However, in order to actually seek redress under these rights, a long and expensive legal battle had to be fought through the European Courts. The Human Rights Act allowed British judges to make rulings on Human Rights, with the European Courts only acting as an appellate court.
The Act also officially abolished the death penalty in the United Kingdom, although the death penalty only existed for certain military crimes and hadn't been used in decades.
Rights guaranteed under the Act
The Human Rights Act itself enables Articles of the European Convention on Human Rights, and some of the Protocols, to be used directly in UK courts. The Articles enabled are as follows:
Article 2: Right to life
Everyone's right to life shall be protected by law. There are some exceptions, such as if someone's right to life is deprived in the course of defending someone from unlawful violence.
Article 3: Prohibition of torture
No exceptions. Torture can never, ever be justified for any reason.
Article 4: Prohibition of slavery and forced labour
Exceptions include things like community service and serving on a jury.
Article 5: Right to liberty and security
Everyone has the right to liberty and security of the person. The rights contained in this article can be breached:
- to imprison someone if they're been convicted by a court,
- if they've not complied with a court order (Contempt of Court),
- if there's reasonable suspicion that they have committed a crime,
Article 6: Right to a fair trial
Everyone shall be presumed innocent until proven guilty. People must be given the chance to obtain legal representation - free, if they cannot afford it, if it's in the interests of justice
Article 7: No punishment without law
If it wasn't a crime when someone did it (whatever "it" is), they can't be punished for it. The law cannot be applied retrospectively. e.g. if it wasn't illegal to possess a psychoactive substance yesterday, you "dispose" of it, and today it does becomes illegal to possess, you cannot be punished for possessing it yesterday.
Also, if someone did commit a criminal act and the punishment is now harsher than when they committed it (e.g. longer prison sentence), their punishment must be in line with the punishment of the time they committed the crime.
Your right to a private and family life, your home, and your correspondence should all be respected.
Article 9: Freedom of thought, conscience and religion
Freedom to hold religion, thoughts, political views etc. without interference, as well as freedom to practice and manifest these beliefs.
Article 10: Freedom of expression
Freedom to speak and write freely, without interference from the state. However, this doesn't mean the state cannot require licensing for broadcasting, television companies or cinemas.
Article 11: Freedom of assembly and association
Freedom to join trade unions and to protest.
Article 12: Right to marry
All men and women of marriageable age have the right to get married according to the national laws regarding the provision of marriage.
Article 14: Prohibition of discrimination
All the rights contained within the European Convention are usable by anybody, regardless of their sex, race, colour, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth, or other status.
Article 1: Protection of property
Everybody shall have the right to peaceful enjoyment of their possession. They shall not be deprived of their possessions, unless it's in the public interest to do so and this deprivation of possessions is allowed by law.
Article 2: Right to education
Everybody has the right to an education. In the provision of educational services, the state must respect the right of parents to ensure the teaching their children receives conforms with their own religious and philosophical beliefs.
Article 3: Right to free elections
Free elections must be held at regular intervals, via secret ballot, in order to allow the people to express their opinions on the choice of the legislature.
Article 1: Abolition of the death penalty
The death penalty shall be abolished. Nobody shall ever receive the death penalty.
From the right
The Conservative Party went into the 2010 general election promising to abolish the Human Rights Act and replace it with a "Bill of Rights for Britain." They feel that the Human Rights Act, among other things, prioritises the right of the criminal over the victim, claim that the government's ability to expel disruptive children from schools and deport dangerous criminals is seriously weakened by the act and that it has led to a whole world of expensive, pointless litigation. Naturally, none of this is actually true.
The peak of such criticism arguably occurred in 2011, when the then Home Secretary Theresa May claimed that the Human Rights Act had meant that the Home Office had been prevented from deporting someone because of the fact that they had a cat. Like a lot of what Theresa says, however, such a claim was found to be laughably false, though this hasn't prevented the post-truth MayBot from continuing with her anti-HRA quackery.
No further action on this taken during the Conservative-LibDem coalition government of 2010-15, but abolishing the act remained a campaign promise of the Conservative Party's manifesto for the 2015 general election. Having secured a majority government, the Johnson administration introduced these proposals in June 2022, only for Johnson's successor to veto them.
During the Brexit negotiations, the U.K. Government made it clear that they would make a "Reaffirmation of the United Kingdom's commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which might be taken to mean the retention of the HRA, given that its only reason for existence is to give a sort of 'direct effect' to the rights found in the Convention. However the act is still in effect, so evidently this was not the case.
From the left
Certain criticism has come from left-wingers that the Human Rights Act does not protect people enough, as certain provisions allow for different implications in times of war, or against terrorism.
Under the Act, judges are permitted to make a declaration of incompatibility, stating that a piece of law is not compatible with the Human Rights Act. However, the Government is under no obligation to actually do anything to rectify the incompatibility or to change its ways at all. This makes a declaration under s4 about as effective as a wet tissue.
On the whole, the Human Rights Act was a ridiculously important milestone in UK law and has probably done more good than bad. It has also produced some amazing cases - Lord Hoffman's dissenting opinion in A and others v Secretary of State for the Home Department is one of the greatest pieces of legal writing ever produced by a British judge.
- Good luck with that now though, thanks to the Legal Aid reforms!
- The Snoopers' Charter totally won't breach this. Nope. Not at all.
This is a qualified right, meaning it can be breached only under the following circumstances:
- It's in the interests of national security, public safety, or the economic wellbeing of the country;
- For the prevention of disorder and crime
- For the protection of health and morals
- For the protection of the rights and freedoms of others
- Rights Removal Bill is 'giant leap backwards' for ordinary people, Amnesty International UK, 22 June 2022
- Liz Truss shelves bill of rights as Whitehall cites need for radical overhaul – live, Microsoft News, 7 September 2022
- In effect, this means that these rights can be enforced against the state (and individuals in some instances) in a U.K. court
-  UKHL 56