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Assess the impact of the Human Rights Act 1998, incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights, on UK citizens

Introduction

“The Human Rights Act gives every citizen a clear statement of rights and responsibilities. And it requires all of us in public services to respect human rights in everything we do”[1]. This was a statement made by the Prime Minister just a year before the introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998. This came into force on the 2nd of October 2000, incorporating the rights and freedoms protected by the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR). This is an international treaty that was drafted on the 4th of November 1950 by the Council of Europe, a regional body that now comprises 46 member states. The body principally responsible for the interpretation and application of the Convention is the European Court of Human Rights, which sits in Strasbourg.

The Convention’s first Article obliges all signatory countries to secure the rights included in its clauses for everyone in their jurisdiction. Therefore, apart from effective laws, member states need to establish procedures that provide effective remedies in case a right protected in the ECHR is breached. However, for the UK, the Act was meant to become something more than a piece of primary legislation. In the absence of a written Constitution, the government hoped that the Act will become the first Bill of Rights for both UK citizens and all peoples living in Britain. It was also anticipated that it will give to UK citizens a new symbol that would unite them under one common vision; that of human rights.

The impact of the Human Rights Act 1998 on UK citizens

The White Paper which preceded the Act, ‘Rights Brought Home’, proclaimed a new era in the protection of the rights of everyone living in the country. In particular, it stated: “In this country it was long believed that the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Convention could be delivered under our common law. In the last two decades, however, there has been a growing awareness that it is not sufficient to rely on the common law and that incorporation is necessary”[2].

In consequence, one of the principal objectives of the Act was to give national courts as much space as possible to protect human rights, short of powers to set aside Acts of parliament. The Act did not take away or restrict any existing human rights recognised in the country. On the contrary, it introduced the minimum standards protected by the ECHR, leaving room for their development and expansion according to citizens’ particular circumstances. It also introduced a number of new rights such as the ones relating to privacy[3], gay and transgender rights[4].

More importantly, it imposed direct negative and positive obligations on public authorities to behave within a human rights framework. In the words of the then Home Secretary Jack Straw: “Over time, the Bill will bring about the creation of a human rights culture in Britain. In future years historians may regard the Bill as one of the most important measures of this Parliament”[5]. This meant that the Act was going to reform public services so that both their quality and delivery is improved for UK citizens.

In addition, the Act was intended to reinforce the feeling of British citizenship by bringing UK citizens closer, binding them under a common belief. Historian Linda Colley said in her speech to the Prime Minister: “…we badly need more inspiring and more accessible definitions of citizenship…What is indispensable it seems to me is a new millennium charter or contract of citizen’s rights”[6].

The Home Office, the Department that was then responsible for the application of the Act said as a responce: “The Human Rights Act is a cornerstone of our work to modernize the Constitution. It is one of the most important pieces of constitutional legislation the UK has seen”[7].

A critique

There can be no doubt that the Human Rights Act has so far been successful in protecting most of the rights protected in the European Convention of Human Rights. Of course, this is not to suggest that a number of practical problems have not occasionally arisen. The UK, for instance, is one of the few member states that has still not incorporated all the articles included in the ECHR, while several reservations remain in place.

More importantly, despite the potentials