Should the UK scrap the Human Rights Act?

This was the subject of a talk that our Chair, Huw Kyffin, gave to the Whitstable Sceptics on September 5.  This is a summary of what he said:

The Human Rights Act was passed in 1998 and its intention was to bring the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into British law.

Previously British citizens could make representations to the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg if they felt that a ruling in a British Court contravened the Convention.

The Conventions was established in 1950 and Britain was one of the original signatories of it. The British lawyer and MP David Maxwell-Fyfe was the main progenitor of the Convention.

The convention itself was largely based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, agreed by the UN in 10949.  It was inspired by a desire for the horrors of the Second World War never to happen again.  It consists of 30 Articles.  The ECHR consist of 17 Articles and several Protocols.

The signatories to the ECHR are the 47 countries that form the Council of Europe.  These are all the countries of Europe except Belarus, Kosovo, Monaco and the Vatican State.

By incorporating the ECHR into British law citizens can gain redress for an infringement of their rights from British Courts without having to go to Strasbourg.  It allows people to turn to UK courts and UK judges if they feel their rights are not being respected by the government.

The Act ensures that the UK Government must explain how all new laws proposed are compliant with human rights; and brings human rights into all state decisions.

Since the Act is based in the ECHR it is nothing to do with membership of the EU.  If the Act was repealed British citizens would still have the right to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights because Britain is a member of the Council of Europe. 

Why then did the Tories announce in their manifesto for the 2015 election that they would “scrap” the Human Rights Act?

One explanation may be that they were embarrassed by two high profile cases:

  1. The Abu Qatada case
  2. The right of prisoners to vote case.

In both cases the Government did not like what the European Court of Human Rights decided, so they proposed to scrap the HRA.

Why hasn’t it already been scrapped then?

Since the Act was passed legislation in the UK has had to take into account the HRA – including the Good Friday agreement that ended the conflict in NI.  Simply scrapping the Act would therefore undermine various laws that have come into force since it was enacted.

There is a significant minority within the Tory party who have been consistently opposed to scrapping the Act, including Dominic Grieve the former Attorney General.

Has the HRA done any good?

Yes –there are many individual cases such as enabling an elderly couple to continue to live together when one of them has needed to live in a care home

Some have had a high profile in the media:

Deep Cut.  This was a training camp for army recruits and several died in mysterious circumstances.  The initial inquest recorded a verdict of suicide.  The parents of one victim used the Human Rights Act to get a second inquest and this established an important precedent, that inquest are allowed to provide a “narrative” verdict.   In this case that the suicide occurred because the army neglected its duty of care for the individual soldier.

Hillsborough.  The initial inquest on the Hillsborough disaster gave a verdict of accidental death, and the coroner refused to consider any evidence relating to events that happened after the time the last person died.  Using the Human Rights Act the campaigners for Hillsborough eventually got a second inquest which resulted in a verdict of unlawful killing, which is now leading to prosecutions of key personnel.

Following the talk there was a lively discussion about the Act and Human Rights in general.  The group felt much better informed about the Act than they had before the meeting, and were pleased that it countered the distortions that often appear in Press when the Act is in the news.


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