Human Rights in the UK
Human rights are the basic freedoms and rights that everyone is entitled to. These rights include the right to life, liberty, equality, fair treatment before the law and an adequate standard of living.
The UK has incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into its domestic law, so people can raise rights claims in British courts. But these rights have been under attack for years.
Basic rights and freedoms
Since the UK joined the European Convention on Human Rights in 1950, judges have been able to review whether public bodies are acting within the law. However, they have not been able to declare legislation unconstitutional and overturn it, as in the United States. This changed with the Human Rights Act of 1998, which incorporated the Convention into domestic law.
The Human Rights Act ensures that UK courts will comply with the rights set out in the Convention, and that people can challenge laws they believe breach these rights. The Act also enables judges to issue a ‘declaration of incompatibility’ if they think a piece of legislation breaches the Convention.
Some critics argue that the Human Rights Act has undermined parliamentary sovereignty – traditionally seen as a defining feature of the UK constitution. They suggest that it forces British judges to apply rulings they might not agree with made by the Strasbourg court, and makes it harder to deal with issues like crime, immigration, and terrorism.
Freedom of expression
Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right that ensures people have a chance to voice their opinions and ideas. It is a key principle enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is the cornerstone for free societies. Governments and other public authorities must respect your right to freedom of speech. However, they can only interfere with this right when it’s absolutely necessary in a democratic society.
Restrictions on freedom of expression should be limited, clearly set out and backed up by laws that are widely understood. They should also be enforceable and incorporate a proper appeals process. Otherwise, they violate your right to freedom of expression and should be prohibited.
Freedom of religion
The freedom of religion is one of the fundamental rights recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. Despite this, around the world, people face discrimination and harassment because of their faith or belief. Several international groups work to expose human rights violations and press for better protection of these rights.
The UK has signed up to the ECHR, and judges can review whether laws break it. They can issue a ‘declaration of incompatibility’ if they find a law breaches a right protected by the ECHR. However, they cannot strike down a law, like the US Supreme Court can.
Some people think that the ECHR has made it too easy for judges to change rights-based legislation. They argue that it is unfair that a ruling in Strasbourg can overturn the will of elected politicians. They suggest that it should be harder to change rights-based legislation, requiring a supermajority in Parliament or a referendum.
Right to privacy
Everyone has the right to privacy – the right to live their own life without interference from government. This includes family relationships, homes and correspondence. Governments can only interfere with these rights if it’s legal and for a good reason – like national security or public safety.
Many of these rights have been incorporated into British law, so you can bring human rights claims to your local court or tribunal. For example, the right to privacy is a part of employment law, so you can bring an unfair treatment claim against your employer if they breach your rights.
The UK has a strong record on human rights, but there are still some serious problems. In the past, challenges for Convention breaches had to be brought to Strasbourg, but since 1998 the UK has “brought rights home” through the Human Rights Act, so people can raise these claims directly in the UK courts. This has saved the country years of unnecessary litigation and expense.