The Human Rights Act has been described as a vital “safety net” for people living in the UK. The law – which was passed by the UK Parliament in 1998 and took effect in 2000 – incorporates into domestic law the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). The ECHR was originally proposed by Winston Churchill and drafted with the help of British lawyers after the second world war.
The Human Rights Act is a piece of law that can be there for you, should you need to invoke it, and was brought forward to protect people from harm in the future. However, that human rights act has attracted countless national headlines in the last two years, as the government has proposed to replace it with a new bill. The bill of rights has come under scrutiny from parliament, human rights lawyers, civil liberty groups and the United Nations for being a “poorly drafted” law that if passed, could make it harder for people to have their rights protected.
What is the bill of rights?
It’s difficult to think how something being decided in parliament might impact your daily life and on the most part, the passing of the bill of rights won’t. However, if you needed to invoke protections, like the right to privacy, the bill of rights may make it more difficult for you to do that.
Dr Alwyn Jones, principal lecturer of law at De Montfort University stated that there is a sense of anxiety that the bill brings out in people: “The first couple of words that come to mind when I think about it would be uncertainty and anxiety about the implications of the bill if it was enacted. I know this because the Joint Committee on Human Rights in their legislative scrutiny document in January of this year said they'd heard from organisations such as charities that support and advocate for women and girls who are victims of violence, victims of trafficking and modern slavery, asylum seekers, and immigration, detention, children in poverty.”
Jones explained that it has left people worried about whether their rights will be adequately protected. He stated: “People in care settings, people with learning disabilities, and people in prisons have been ignored in all sorts of situations where they could have been exploited. Or vulnerable people who have been exposed to violence, who are left thinking: ‘I don't know what this means, for me’ or ‘I feel somewhat exposed, and unsafe, because I felt that I had at least some level of safety net.’”
Restricting the rights of people
In the last two years several bills introduced to parliament have come under fire for increasing policing powers and “reducing” the rights of the public. Those bills include the Nationality and Borders Act, the public order bill, the illegal migration bill and the bill of rights.
Jones explained how we’re seeing a pattern of the government increasing policing powers. He said: “Increasingly, laws are passed, to restrict the rights of people engaged in peaceful protests, for example. If it seems too noisy, disrupting lawful activity that is a statutory offence of public nuisance people could be arrested. It has been used to target journalists reporting on climate protests in London – something similar could happen in Leicester.
“So, with that escalation of police powers and increasing limits on the powers of peaceful protest, the Human Rights Act, as I see, it can play a useful balancing role, particularly through the duty on judges in section three, to interpret the law when possible – to protect human rights.”
How will it affect local people?
Jones explained how the bill could make it harder for people to invoke their rights if passed. “If somebody's in court, in trouble, because of some participation in protest, or something like that, the Human Rights Act provides an opportunity for them to say, 'well, this law does constrain my freedom of association'. Under the Human Rights Act they can make that argument. The bill of rights would remove that obligation.”
By removing positive obligations, if passed, the bill could restrict people’s ability to have their voices heard and defend themselves in a court of law – potentially leading to more convictions. The bill has brought about one question that civil liberty groups, lawyers, parliament and the public have posed: What could the bill mean for people in our communities?
Jones explained: “That can mean somebody potentially being convicted or having their ability to protest constrained. Because they weren't able to make that argument. They could still go to the UK courts and then go join the long queue to take their case to Strasbourg to the European Court of Human Rights some years later, and they might get justice...”
However, that is assuming that the UK remains in the ECHR. With increasing tensions between the government and the ECHR, which the Human Rights Act was based on – attention could be soon returning to scrapping the Human Rights Act in the government's bid to replace it with the bill of rights.
While the bill has been shelved for the moment, it has been hanging over the House of Commons for the past year.
Editor(s): Rhys Everquill and Emma Guy
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