Citizens and residents of the UK have enjoyed certain, fundamental human rights for hundreds of years. The Human Rights Act 1998 enshrined many of these rights in law.
The European Convention on Human Rights
The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) sets out the human rights that are believed to be common to all. These range from the right to life and the right not to be tortured to the right to an education and to own property. The rights are set out as numbered Articles and include the right to life, to freedom of expression and to a fair trial.
Absolute, Limited and Qualified Human Rights under the European Convention
Not all rights contained in the ECHR are absolute. This means that there may be situations where the surrounding circumstances take precedence to a particular human right.
Some human rights are stated to be absolute. These rights are considered to be so fundamental to a civilised, humane society that nothing can justify overriding them. These include the right not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment and the ban on slavery.
Other human rights, such as the right to liberty, are limited under certain, specific circumstances. For example, it may permissible for a person to be deprived of their liberty if they have been lawfully arrested or have been convicted of a criminal offence.
A qualified right may be superseded if there is a basis to do so in law, in order to achieve an aim specifically provided for in the relevant Article or if it is necessary to do so in a democratic society. For example, under the Human Rights Act an individual has the right to respect for their home. However, if the individual falls behind with their rent or mortgage payments the landlord or mortgage company’s legal right to repossess the property is likely to take precedence to the individual’s human right.
The Human Rights Act 1998
Specific legislation is required before most European law can be implemented in the UK. The Human Rights Act 1998 is derived from the ECHR and gives it legal effect in the UK. The Human Rights Act came into force on 2nd October 2000.
The Application of Human Rights Law in the UK
The implementation of the Human Rights Act has had a wide ranging impact on life in the UK. When the Act first came into force some individuals tried to rely on it as a defence or excuse in many different situations. Some defendants in court cases claimed that their human rights had been or would be breached if the case continued.
The ECHR itself specifically states that protection of a particular human right may not always be the overriding consideration. Over the years the courts have decided many cases where Human Rights Act issues have been raised. The courts have traditionally taken a pragmatic view when deciding such issues. It is fair to say that the Act has not provided as much of a defence as some people would have liked. However, there have been many instances where implementation of the Human Rights Act has provided a valuable safeguard not just for one individual but for all those who may find themselves in the same situation.
Observing, Respecting and Enforcing Human Rights
Whilst individuals have the right to have their human rights protected they must also respect the human rights of others. Further, an individual who is exercising their human rights should not do so in such a way as to infringe another person’s human rights. For example, the right to freedom of expression should not be exercised in such a way that it might interfere with another person’s right to life.
If an individual feels that an organisation or government body has not respected their human rights they should start by raising it with the organisation in question. If they are still not satisfied with the way they have been treated they may wish to consider taking legal action against the organisation. This is never a course of action to be embarked on lightly and proper legal advice should be taken first. Cases based on human rights law can be complicated and there is no guarantee of success. Even if a case is won there may be little practical benefit to be gained.