A foundational principle of liberal democracy is that all citizens are equal, and also so the security of standard huguy rights is of critical importance for autonomous effectiveness. In many kind of countries a statement of citizens’ legal rights creates part of the constitution, and is particularly enshrined in regulation and also implemented by the courts. This has actually not occurred in the UK, which has no codified constitution. Instead, in an article from The UK’s Changing Democracy: the 2018 Democratic Audit, Colm O’Cinneide evaluates the even more diffuse and also eclectic ways in which the UK’s political system protects basic humale rights through the Human being Rights Act and other law, and the courts and also Parliament.

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Lady Justice, Old Bailey. Picture: Lonpicman through a CC BY-SA 3.0 licence/Wikimedia Commons

How have to huguy rights and civil liberties be protected in a democracy?Liberal autonomous says are now intended to respect a variety of basic huguy civil liberties collection out in worldwide huguy legal rights treaties such as the European Convention on Human Rights (‘the Convention’). These extfinish from flexibility from torture, to the right to fair trial and liberty from discrimicountry.It is mostly recognised that the functioning of any kind of real democracy must be based on respect for these civil liberties, without which people cannot get involved openly or efficiently in the political procedure.

In the UK constitutional device it is mostly assumed that the political branches of government have to play a leading duty in reresolving conflicts about the scope and also substance of individual civil liberties. However, the courts have end up being significantly involved in adjudicating humale legal rights worries over the last few decades. The protection of individual rights is currently normally perceived as developing component of the ‘mission statement’ of the judicial branch of government, and also human rights situations currently form a considerable element of the case-load of the UK’s premium courts.

The Person Rights Act

The Person Rights Act (‘the HRA’), passed in 1998 by the initially Blair government, is central to the current mechanism of rights protection. It avoided the knotty difficulty of specifying a list of especially ‘British’ legal rights by imposing a duty on all public authorities (aside from Parliament itself) to act compatibly with the civil liberties covered in the European Convention of Person Rights (hereafter ‘the Convention’), to which the UK has been a signatory since 1951. The Act additionally provided the UK courts the power to overturn decisions by UK public authorities which bgot to Convention civil liberties, yet not to overpreeminence regulation passed by Parliament. The courts were offered the power to declare such regulation to be ‘incompatible’ via the Convention, and to analyze it wbelow feasible in a Convention-friendly manner. However, the ultimate decision whether or not to change legislation that has actually an adverse influence on Convention rights was left in the hands of Parliament – which therefore retains the final say as to what constitutes British legislation.


If an individual fails to get a remedy prior to the UK courts under the HRA, they have the right to take a situation to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, as happened over voting civil liberties for detainees in UK jails. Any judgments made by the European Court of Human Rights versus the UK are not binding upon UK public authorities or Parliament. However, strong expectations exist that such judgments by the Strasbourg Court will be complied with by the UK, in addition to all the says in the Council of Europe.

In enhancement to the HRA, the widespread legislation and other statutes passed by Parliament also play a vital duty in protecting individual legal rights by imposing crucial legal constraints upon public authorities. For example, the Ehigh quality Act 2010 stays clear of public authorities discriminating on the basis of race, sex, discapacity and also other grounds of equal treatment. However, these additional resources of legal rights defense play supporting functions as soon as compared to the HRA.

Regardless of these various layers of legal protection, human legal rights neverthemuch less remajor a challenged concept in the British political tradition. They are qualified of being interpreted and understood in various methods. Deep disagreement frequently exists regarding what specifically constitutes a breach of a basic appropriate. In addition, different views exist regarding once and also exactly how the courts need to intervene to defend individual rights. Politicians on a regular basis subject the HRA to criticism, and bemoan the influence exerted by the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human being Rights (ECHR) over UK law. In 2010 and also aobtain in 2015 the Conservative election manifesto proposed replacing the HRA through a ‘British Bill of Rights’, although in exercise Tory federal governments since 2015 have actually not been able to implement this idea.

Successive UK federal governments have actually also presented legislation that has actually diluted protections for civil liberties and fundamental legal rights in the spheres of national security/counter-terrorism, immigration and also socio-financial entitlements: it is most likely that this pattern will proceed. Brdeparture is posing additionally obstacles, by in specific rerelocating the safety and security blanket for certain non-discrimicountry, migrant and work civil liberties formerly offered by EU legislation.

The location of both the HRA and European Convention of Human Rights within the UK’s legal system for this reason stays open to debate, as does the standing of human legal rights worths even more generally: no consensus yet exists regarding exactly how human rights must finest be safeguarded within the framework of the British constitution. And while the scope of legal civil liberties defense in the UK is relatively strong, it is restricted. Socio-economic legal rights are specifically poorly covered, and also worldwide humale rights regulation has actually extremely limited influence on UK law or plan.

Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats (SWOT) analysis

Current strengthsCurrent weaknesses
The UK’s constitutional culture worths civil liberties (at least in the abstract). There is a formal adopt of human rights values within government. Plenty of lip business is paid to huguy civil liberties worths both within and also outside of government. The UK is likewise an advocate for extfinishing and also enhancing humale rights protection globally.Little political agreement exists as to the actual substance of huguy civil liberties guarantees. The existing frame of UK legal legal rights protection (based on the HRA and also European Convention) is breakable to political assault, with Conservative calls for a ‘British Bill of Rights’ to relocation them. Judgments by the ECHR in Strasbourg that go against UK policies or impede ministers’ executive activity capabilities consistently spark public assaults on the Court.
Current legislation offers a strong legal protection for core civil and also political civil liberties via by the interlinked HRA and European Convention on Human being Rights mechanisms.Brexit is removing the safety and security blanket for certain non-discrimicountry, miapprove and also work legal rights previously provided by EU law. The EU’s Fundapsychological Charter of Rights is terminated by the 2018 law to withattract from the EU.
In UK civil culture, there is a solid commitment to legal rights values and also activism. Human being rights and also civil liberties gain reasonably solid political assistance, in particular from younger age teams and also in the ddeveloped areas.UK federal governments have been repeatedly able to present legislation diluting rights protection, specifically in areas like nationwide security, immigration and also socio-economic entitlements.
The UK has actually a fairly solid institutional structure for protecting civil liberties, which exoften tends beyond the courts – consisting of the Equalities and also Human being Rights Commission, and the Joint Committee on Human being Rights in Parliament (view below).The scope of legal civil liberties protection in the UK is limited. Social and economic civil liberties (for example, to obtain appropriate healthcare) are the a lot of poorly established and also defended. International huguy civil liberties legislation has had an extremely restricted affect on UK law or policy.

Future opportunitiesFuture threats
Attempts to reform the existing Convention/HRA framework led to a pushearlier that has actually mobilised political assistance in favour of retaining them. So far the potential political expenses affiliated, and the natural challenges of developing any kind of different frame, has intended politicians have not tried to implement major transforms from the status quo.Human being rights remajor contested concepts in British political society, and breakable to political strike – particularly when the rights of terrorist suspects, migrants, members of unpopular minority teams and various other disfavoured social groupings are at problem. For currently, the place of legal civil liberties protection within the UK’s constitutional society remains unspecific.
The divisive nature of Brexit process may actually serve to highlight the prominence of legal legal rights defense.The increase of right-wing populism as a political motion, via its intense anti-immigration focus and proneness to seeking ‘naïve statist’ remedies, has actually developed a political climate wbelow rights risk being swept away to placate ‘nativist’ sentiment.
Enthusiasm for human rights values stays extremely solid among younger age groups: they also proceed to attract support from both intellectual opinion-formers and wide swathes of civil culture. This bedrock of support can provide a platcreate for additionally growth of existing rights defense later, in specific in areas such as socio-financial rights.

The UK’s sluggish and also cautious embrace of huguy rights

The UK only became a democracy in a meaningful feeling of that term by 1918 through the success of universal (male) suffrage after a long procedure of constitutional struggle. In the previous decades a broad political consensus had actually arised to the result that the Westminster Parliament have to exercise its sovereign law-making powers (within the UK mainland also itself) in a manner that respected both the dominion of law and also fundamental civil liberties. (For noticeable factors, the legal rules applying in the British empire’s swarms were treated in a different way.) These political constraints, taken along with the restricted degree of defense afforded by the prevalent law to personal liberty, helped to provide climb to a culture of individual liberty that was comparatively well-emerged for its era.

Until the 2nd World War and even into the post-battle duration a lot of lawyers common the complacent see of the turn-of-the-20th-century legal scholar A. V. Dicey that ‘the securities for individual freedom are in England as finish as the laws can make them’. He argued:

‘In England also no guy can be made to suffer punishment or to pay damperiods for any type of conduct not certainly forbidden by law; eincredibly man’s legal legal rights or liabilities are practically invariably identified by the ordinary Courts of the realm, and each man’s individual rights are much much less the result of our constitution than the basis on which that constitution is started.’

As Anthony Lester has commented, ‘the prevailing British constitutional ideology…treated British topics as “topics of the Crown” without the advantage of basic constitutional rights’. The liberties of the topic were ‘residual and also negative in their nature’. The individual was complimentary to do anypoint that the law had actually not forbidden, but appreciated no installed or constitutionally safeguarded positive entitlements that could not be transformed by new law or the exercise of ministerial prerogative powers. Respect for legal rights and freedoms in the UK hence relied on Parliament showing restraint once it legislated on matters that impacted civil liberties. Even on the political left this stance was accepted by the Labour Party and profession unions. They feared that formally listing huguy civil liberties would certainly restrict their future capacity to legislate in Parliament to achieve social or financial recreates. It could additionally introduce (conservative) judges as arbiters of what law was permissible.

However, as the 20th century advanced, this Diceyan agreement progressively began to be called into question. The parliamentary restraint needed was not always forthcoming. For instance, at various durations parliamentary law applied considerable constraints upon civil liberties in areas such as nationwide defense and also counter-terrorism, profession union task, and freedom of speech and also the push. The wide-varying discretionary powers delighted in by public authorities were also prone to abuse, particularly once it pertained to colonial governance in the British empire, and to the treatment of immigrants, minorities and also various other teams doing not have political power also within the house islands.

From the late 1960s on, this ‘legacy’ state of affairs came under boosting criticism from civil culture organisations campaigning in the area of law recreate – such as Justice, Charter 88 and also Liberty (then referred to as the National Council for Civil Liberties). In Northern Ireland, in the time of the years of the equipped conflict in between 1969 and also 1995, agents of the state were clearly connected in widespcheck out humale legal rights abuses. Taken in addition to prospering comes to about the therapy of ethnic minorities and other delicate teams within British culture, these advancements dealt further blows to any type of lingering complacency about just how liberties and civil liberties were safeguarded within the UK. The rolling back of the UK welfare state that started in the 1980s, unified via the bitter controversies generated by the trade union disputes of that era, also aided to erode confidence in the standing quo.

The political momentum in favour of recreate was likewise magnified by the development of the global huguy civil liberties movement in the wake of the 2nd World War. As the language of human civil liberties acquired in popularity, states committed themselves to respecting an ever-prospering array of basic civil liberties. Beginning with the European Convention on Human Rights (‘the Convention’) in 1951, the UK ratified a variety of UN and Council of Europe treaty tools setting out a variety of binding huguy civil liberties standards. Many kind of of these commitments ended up being the focus of civil society activism, and began to influence policy-making throughout a variety of different fields. However, the ever-raising salience of ‘civil liberties talk’ additionally started to highlight locations where UK legislation and also plan dropped well brief of establiburned huguy legal rights standards.

In this respect, the civil and also political civil liberties set out in the Convention and the interpretation given to these legal rights by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg became especially significant. With time, the Court’s jurisprudence establiburned a floor of minimum requirements that all European claims were meant to respect. And, from the at an early stage 1970s on, judgments of the Strasbourg Court started to disclose the presence of gaps in human legal rights security in UK regulation. As a consequence, the Court’s jurisprudence resulted in substantial alters being made to UK regulation in areas such as freedom of expression, privacy, flexibility from discrimination, freedom from inhuguy and also degrading treatment and also the right to fair trial. However, this likewise attracted attention to the lack of a residential equivalent to the ECHR, and also the lack of any legal system within British legislation which could percreate the rights protective function being played by the Strasbourg Court.

The advancement of the European Union’s equality legislation, as understood and applied by the separate Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU), had a similar influence, highlighting the gap that frequently existed in between rhetoric and truth when it came to the UK’s commitment to values of equality, and to non-discrimicountry even more mainly. Other areas of humale rights law also brought into emphasis brand-new shortcomings in the UK’s track record, in specific once it came to the positive obligations applied upon the state to take action to protect delicate people and teams at eone-of-a-kind risk of damage – such as children, persons with physical and also mental disabilities, refugees and migrants, and the homemuch less.

All of these determinants contributed to fuelling flourishing disenchantment with the UK’s historic strategy to huguy civil liberties concerns, and also in specific via the absence of any type of comprehensive legal humale rights security. In response, British courts started in the at an early stage 1990s to identify the visibility of a limited set of ‘common law rights’ such as flexibility of expression and also the best of access to courts. They now interpreted legislation as topic to a presumption that Parliament did not intend to permit public authorities to violate these prevalent regulation rights, unless the statutory message included express or plainly implied provisions to that effect.

However before, the significant change in legal rights thinking was a political one. In 1995 a freshly developed (and also evanescent) team (the Labour Rights Campaign) circularised Labour constituency parties with a model resolution calling for the incorporation of the European Convention on Human being Rights into UK law. This made it onto the last Conference agenda, and also was brought overwhelmingly, coming to be official Labour policy, and attracting continuing elite assistance within the party. By 1997, when the Labour Party went back to power after 18 years of being in opplace, the political climate was ripe for redevelop – which cleared the way for Parliament to enact the Human being Rights Act (HRA) in 1998. Piloted through by Lord Irvine (but nearly ignored in Tony Blair’s autobiography) the Act qualifies as one of the the majority of significant constitutional developments given that the establishment of the UK’s modern democratic frameworks.

The UK’s current system of legal civil liberties protection

The HRA included the key civil liberties set out in the European Convention on Person Rights right into UK legislation and made it possible for people to sue public authorities once these legal rights are violated. It thereby introduced for the first time a considerable form of ‘legal rights review’ into the British legal system. The Act also set out to strike a vulnerable constitutional balance – by leaving parliamentary sovereignty intact, while making it feasible for courts to play an active role in protecting huguy civil liberties.

A area of the Act imposes a duty on all public authorities (aside from Parliament) to act compatibly through Convention rights. If a public authority violates a Convention best, then a court can award the victim of the breach a ‘simply and appropriate’ remedy. The courts neverthemuch less cannot collection aside parliamentary law (unlike the situation via EU law). This leaves Parliament through the last say once it comes to determining the law as it relates to huguy civil liberties concerns. But the courts are forced to translate main and additional regulation under one section ‘as much as possible’ so as to keep conformity with Convention civil liberties. Additionally, where that is not feasible, under one more section the courts have the right to worry a non-legally binding ‘declaration of incompatibility’, stating that the law in question is incompatible with the Convention. Ministers and Parliament are under no (legal) duty to respond to such a declaration, past the political embarrassment involved. But it was designed to attract Parliament’s attention to the existence of a situation of incompatibility via the UK’s huguy rights responsibilities under the Convention – potentially bring about a fast-track change of the legislation, if the politicians agree.

The HRA scheme of legal rights protection was designed to job-related with the grain of Britain’s constitutional traditions, fairly than against it. It kept parliamentary sovereignty while attempting to encertain that Convention legal rights will certainly neverthemuch less ‘exert a magnetic force over the whole political and also legal system’. In addition, since coming right into pressure in 2000, the machinery of the Act has actually by and also big functioned according to its function. Its provisions have enhanced awareness of legal rights in government, while additionally making it much easier for individuals to obstacle nationwide legislations and also exercise which infringe their legal rights.

For instance, decisions by the UK courts using Convention rights in line via the HRA framework have actually recreated defamation regulation by extfinishing security for liberty of speech, magnified the rights of patients undergoing psychological wellness therapy, granted brand-new civil liberties to unmarried would-be adoptive paleas in Northern Ireland also, and also clarified the rights of persons via severe disabilities. Additionally, particular major legislative reforms, including the Mental Health Act 2007, the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 and the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012, were passed partly in response to HRA judgments – which had established difficulties with the justice and also fairness of existing laws.

The legal security afforded by the HRA has actually been complemented by various other institutional structures. For example, the Westminster Parliament has actually establiburned a Joint Committee on Person Rights (JCHR), created of members from both the Commons and the Lords, which scrutinises the human legal rights influence of legislative proposals and also existing regulation. Outside of Parliament, the official Etop quality and also Person Rights Commission has actually been established to promote the UK’s compliance with human legal rights and also non-discrimicountry. Furthermore, all the devolved authorities, consisting of the Northern Irish and also Welsh Assemblies and the Scottish Parliament, are forced to comply with Convention legal rights by virtue of particular provisions collection out in the dadvancement statutes. This limit on the powers of the devolved authorities reflects the presumption underlying the HRA that Convention legal rights constitute a floor of legal rights security that all public authorities must respect: it additionally demonstrates the extent to which legal rights defense has been wcooktop into the towel of the UK constitution in the wake of Labour’s constitutional redevelop agenda of the late 1990s.

Other statutes, such as the Freedom of Indevelopment Act 2000 and the Equality Act 2010, have actually likewise concerned play an important duty in protecting legal rights. In specific, the 2010 Act prohibits public authorities from discriminating on the basis of race, sex, disability and a selection of various other grounds and needs all public authorities to offer due regard in the performance of their features to the have to eliminate discrimicountry and also promote equality of opportunity. The ongoing advancement of the ‘prevalent regulation rights’ jurisprudence by the superior courts has also contributed an additional layer of legal security, highlighted by the UK Supreme Court’s current finding in R(Unison) v Lord Chancellor that the implace of employment tribunal fees had breached the widespread regulation principle of access to justice.

Outside of the legal conmessage, huguy rights values tempt considerable support – in particular from civil society teams. They additionally have actually attracted a details level of buy-in from many public authorities, also if the level of this have the right to differ significantly. UK international policy remains committed to cultivating respect for the global humale civil liberties architecture, and also most mainstream UK political voices endorse the prestige of civil liberties – in the abstract, at leastern.

Challenges to the legitimacy of UK humale civil liberties protection

Yet real troubles remajor via the defense of human legal rights in the UK. Legal civil liberties protection mechanisms such as the HRA emphasis on core collection of civil and political rights. Other types of huguy civil liberties – in particular socio-economic rights – absence substantive legal security, through the majority of the UK Supreme Court confirming in R (SG) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions that unintegrated human civil liberties treaty instruments perform not create part of UK legislation. In many locations – in certain the spheres of immigration regulate, nationwide security/counter-terrorism, liberty of association and also speech, and the therapy of persons via mental disabilities and also other fragile groups – UK legislation has actually been the regular subject of criticism from human civil liberties skilled committees at the UN and also the Council of Europe.

Furthermore, the manner in which the ECHR and also HRA serve as the keystones of the existing British device of legal civil liberties protection has actually come under continual political strike (from the right or conservative forces) over the last few years. A right-wing push narrative has emerged that portrays humale civil liberties adjudication as ‘fetishising’ or being excessively pertained to with the legal rights of minorities at the price of the public interest. The Hirst (No. 2) decision of the European Court of Human being Rights in Strasbourg on prisoner voting rights attracted substantial political hostility, as have actually judgments by the EU and UK courts which have implemented constraints on the power of ministers to deport non-nationals. Calls have been created a basic re-think of the UK’s relationship via the Strasbourg Court, and also by expansion through the Convention/HRA plan of legal rights defense even more primarily. For example, Lord Hoffmann in 2009 argued that an international court prefer Strasbourg lacked the ‘constitutional legitimacy’ to impose its interpretation of the abstract legal rights set out in the message of the Convention on national parliaments and courts, and also struck what he saw as expansionist tendencies within the jurisprudence of the Court. Leading politicians and also conservative think tanks have voiced comparable views, expushing worry in certain that the HRA and also ECHR unduly extfinished judicial power at the expense of political decision-making.

In turn, there has been a pushback against many of these claims. NGOs, academic commentators and political numbers (also liberal Conservatives) have safeguarded the HRA and also the Strasbourg Court’s jurisprudence. They argue that its ‘living instrument’ interpretative method enables the Court to maintain the integrity of its instance law by ensuring that it mirrors modern moral and social understandings of the core content of huguy civil liberties. The dispute has additionally been made that the UK’s membership of the ECHR has been a positive pressure for excellent, helping to boost respect for huguy civil liberties and providing a vital safeguarding attribute in the context of Northern Ireland also. Supporters of the legal status quo likewise make the situation that the ECHR link and the provisions of the HRA is wholly compatible through the UK’s constitutional values, including the principle of democratic self-governance as reflected in the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty.

In spite of this, critics of the HRA continue to argue that radical reform is needed. Important aspects of the Conservative Party in specific assistance repeal of the HRA and its replacement by a ‘British Bull of Rights’, which would alleviate the affect of Strasbourg on UK regulation and limit the existing scope of judicial defense of rights in areas such as national protection and immigration regulate. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, has even suggested that major consideration have to be given to the UK leaving the European Convention device of legal rights protection.

However before, formidable political obstacles lie in the means of any kind of such radical reform. The dadvanced governments reprimary extremely hostile to any tinkering via the HRA, which would require adjustments to be made to dprogressed governance arrangements – and also, in the situation of Northern Ireland also, might breach the regards to the Belrapid Covenant 1998. Any move on the component of the UK to withdraw from the ECHR is likely to fulfill stiff diplomatic resistance from other European governments. In addition, any kind of attempt to repeal the HRA is most likely to generate comprehensive legal uncertainty, and to trigger considerable political push-back within the UK.

All of these determinants mean that Conservative Party ambitions at miscellaneous times and in differing strengths to amend/repeal the HRA have actually hence much not been interpreted right into concrete legislative proposals. However, it stays to be checked out just how this situation will certainly play out in the future. Brleave is currently reshaping crucial elements of legal rights defense in the UK. The EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 offers sweeping powers to the UK government to amfinish or repeal existing legislation/regulations which provide result to EU law. Many observers fear that these powers can be supplied in the future to threaten the defense currently afforded by EU law in locations such as etop quality legislation, labour legislation and also migive civil liberties. Additionally, the worldwide climate has grown much even more hostile to huguy civil liberties values more primarily, with the climb of aggressive populism (especially nationalist-based) and also majoritarian/anti-migrant perspectives in many various says. These fads additionally surface on a regular basis in British political disputes, making the future of humale legal rights protection in the UK look extremely uncertain.


Once establimelted on the statute publications bills or charters of civil liberties have greatly tended to come to be more and also even more embedded over time in the thinking and operations of the countries involved. The longer that they have the right to endure and also operate, the more challenging it becomes for their critics or enemies to abolish or rearea them. The inaction so much on earlier Tory pledges of a ‘British Bill of Rights’ instead of the HRA given that 2010 can be evidence of such an result. And the bedrock of assistance for huguy rights amongst younger age groups, intellectual opinion-formers and wide swathes of civil culture could yet provide a platcreate for additionally development of existing legal rights protection later on, in specific in areas such as socio-economic rights wright here the UK currently falls brief. This is also the location highlighted most by the Brexit procedure, via its polarising impacts on UK society. Potentially, then, repeal of the HRA or withdrawal from the ECHR may fall off the political agenda. In fact, the Brexit process might actually serve to highlight the importance of legal civil liberties defense, and to strengthen assistance for the status quo as necessary.

However, human rights legislation and also principles remajor vulnerable to political attack – specifically as soon as they seem to defend anti-social minorities like terrorist suspects, or unwell-known minority groups, prefer migrants. Right-wing populist political movements, and also some sections of the press, with their intense anti-immigration focus, have actually created a political climate wbelow legal rights risk being brushed up away to placate nativist sentiment. For currently, the area of legal legal rights defense within the UK’s constitutional society continues to be uncertain. Much may depend upon the political fall-out from EU withdrawal, and also exactly how UK culture responds to the existing crisis of neo-liberalism.

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This is an extract from our book, The UK’s Changing Democracy: The 2018 Democratic Audit, published by LSE Press. You can downpack the finish book here, and also the individual chapter below.