Human Rights Act: Explained

What does this Human Rights Act entitle me to?

Right now your human rights in the UK are protected by the Human Rights Act, passed in 1998.

The act reinforces your right to life, meaning the state is required to investigate suspicious deaths and deaths in custody. It also protects against torture, slavery, unlawful detention and discrimination. It gives you a right to privacy, freedom of speech and a family life, plus a bunch of other stuff.  

It means no worries, for the rest of your days.

But it’s no problem free philosophy, because the Conservative government wants to scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights.

Scenes of Reason made the boring not boring for you. We also spotted something the poster campaigns missed.

How does the Human Rights Act work?

Theresa May

Theresa May really REALLY doesn’t like the Human Rights Act – we’ll tell you why in a bit. Source: Telegraph

The Human Rights Act was passed to bring Britain into line with the European Convention on Human Rights. Let’s be clear – this has nothing to do with the European Union. This is an agreement of the basic rights that all European citizens should have. It was created, with Britain leading the way, after WWII  to make sure atrocities such as the Holocaust did not happen again.  It’s the job of the European Court of Human Rights to make sure that participating countries like Britain toe the line. This is the bit that the government doesn’t like – we’ll get to that in a minute.

If your human rights have been violated, the Human Rights Act means your case can be heard in the UK courts, rather than having to go straight to the European Court of Human Rights.

Under the Human Rights Act, it is illegal for any UK public authority – including police officers, local authorities, government departments, prisons and social care providers – to ignore your human rights. You can take your case to court if they do so. With one catch, these guys can ignore your human rights if Parliament has passed a law saying that they can.

UK courts can decide that UK legislation is not in line with the human rights contained in the European Convention, but Parliament does not legally have to do anything about it. It’s up to Parliament whether or not to amend that legislation. Similarly, when deciding how UK law fits with the European Convention, the UK courts are not required to follow what the European Court of Human Rights thinks. Instead UK courts just have to “take into account” any decisions made by the European Court of Human Rights.

There is wiggle room in this act.

Why does the government want rid of the Human Rights Act?

Right Hon Chris Grayling

Former Justice Minister Chris Grayling MP wrote up a report on scrapping the act

According to the Conservative party, the wiggle room currently allowed by the Human Rights Act is not enough.

Basically the current UK government doesn’t like being told what to do, or being stopped from doing what it wants to do. The argument is that the European Court of Human Rights has too much power, and tends to interpret human rights law much more loosely than the UK likes.

The previous government was especially annoyed by how long it took to deport Abu Qatada to face terror charges in Jordan, because the European Court of Human Rights ruled that he risked torture and inhumane treatment.

Here are four reasons the Conservatives have put forward for scrapping the act, translated into plain English.

The European Court of Human Rights has developed ‘mission creep’: The Strasbourg Court has gone human rights loco, interpreting the European Convention beyond what the original authors of the Convention ever had in mind. For example, a 2007 ruling required the UK to allow many more prisoners the right to go through artificial insemination with their partners, in order to uphold their rights to a family life under Article 8. According to the Conservative party, “this is not what the originators of the Convention had in mind when they framed that article.”

The Human Rights Act undermines the UK courts. In a nutshell, the government doesn’t like that UK courts have to “take into account” the reasoning of the European Court of Human Rights, as it means that “problematic Strasbourg jurisprudence is often being applied in UK law.”

In practice, the Human Rights Act undermines the authority of Parliament. The Conservative argument is that UK courts have sometimes preferred to follow the lead of the European Court of Human Rights when deciding whether UK law complies with human rights or not. This has sometimes meant that the court’s decision went against what Parliament intended when they were writing the law in the first place, and Parliament is supposed to be sovereign.

The Human Rights Act goes beyond the UK’s obligations under the Convention. Decisions made by the European Court of Human Rights are supposed to be binding, meaning that the court can tell the UK to change its laws if they don’t properly fit with the European Convention. There was nothing in the original European Convention that allowed for this. The UK’s authority to control its own law should not be undermined by a European court, it is argued.

This last point is up for debate though. The European Court of Human Rights ruled a decade ago that Britain should allow its prisoners to vote, in order to fit with Article 3 allowing free and fair elections. The UK has seriously contested this ruling and so far no changes have been made to the law. So it’s not true to say that the European Court of Human Rights has the all-out power to force the UK to change its law, because so far it hasn’t been successful in changing Britain’s law on prisoners’ voting rights.

What’s in this proposed British Bill of Rights?

Justice Minister Michael Gove

Justice Minister Michael Gove is one doing the drafting

The Conservative party manifesto promised to scrap the Human Rights Act and bring in a British Bill of Rights.

Nobody knows yet what exactly this will involve. We’re expecting a draft this Autumn.

Here’s what the manifesto promised to do:

“The Bill will remain faithful to the basic principles of human rights, which we signed up to in the original European Convention on Human Rights. It will protect basic rights, like the right to a fair trial, and the right to life, which are an essential part of a modern democratic society. But it will reverse the mission creep that has meant human rights law being used for more and more purposes, and often with little regard for the rights of wider society. Among other things the Bill will stop terrorists and other serious foreign criminals who pose a threat to our society from using spurious human rights arguments to prevent deportation.”

I Skipped the Rest: Who is this going to affect?

I needed the human rights act poster campaign

Not enough time to read these on the escalators?

If you live in London, Manchester or drive around major motorways, you’ve maybe seen the “I Needed the Human Rights Act” poster campaign.

If you’re like us, you don’t have time to read everything on the posters because the escalators go too fast. So here’s the campaign in full.

The gist is that anyone can need human rights law, and the Human Rights Act was intended to make that more secure for people.

But the poster campaign has missed those who will be most affected. Most affected by the bill will likely be terror suspects and foreign criminals. Like it says in the Conservative manifesto, the plan is to make it harder for these people to appeal to the right not to be tortured or inhumanely treated, or to the right to a family life as grounds not to be deported from the UK.

Put plainly, the British Bill of Rights is likely to make it a lot easier to deport people to places the European Court has judged dangerous or likely to treat their criminals inhumanely.

Even though terror suspects, foreign national prisoners and migrants will see the biggest changes once the Human Rights Act is scrapped, they are not very often included in otherwise very good campaigns like the posters or like this one.

This is understandable: they are what we call the Unpopular Humans. Very few people in society are willing to stand up for the rights of terror suspects or foreign criminals. They don’t make very good poster boys. Some would argue they don’t deserve this kind of fair treatment, or that they are abusing human rights to get around the system.

But for some, it’s how we treat terror suspects or foreign criminals which is a marker of our commitment to humanity. Are these people less deserving of their human rights?

For others, the opportunities these people have had to appeal to their human rights has been an obstruction to Britain’s national security and Britain’s authority to make its own decisions.

Here’s a letter you can sign if you are concerned about this. If you reckon the government is doing the right thing, sit back and relax.

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