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Why Britain needs the Human Rights Act

Moving away from international standards for human rights sets a bad example for countries where human rights are already breached
Moving away from international standards for human rights sets a bad example for countries where human rights are already breached

The Queen's Speech put the UK government's plans to scrap the Human Rights Act on the backburner. However, with plans still afoot to replace the Act with a British Bill of Rights before the end of the administration, guest blogger Isabelle looks at the ramifications of moving away from the common European system.

Human rights are fundamental to any just and peaceful society. In the UK, the 1998 Human Rights Act aimed to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into British law. Therefore, if someone has a complaint regarding the human rights law, they can get justice from the British courts instead of having to go the European courts.

Furthermore, all public bodies, including the central government, police, and local councils have to adhere to these rights. The ECHR includes the right to life, liberty, a fair trial, protection against slavery, and freedom of speech.

However, in the 2015 Queen’s Speech, it was announced that the government will bring forward proposals for a British Bill of Rights, which is likely to replace the Human Rights Act (HRA). Although any immediately plans to scrap the Act have been delayed, legislation is expected to follow consultation later in the parliament.

Why do away with the Act?

Some court rulings made under Article Eight of the ECHR have met with criticism: for example, cases that saved criminals and terrorists from deportation—under the right to a family life, or the right not to be tortured. However, these incidents don’t compare to the number of favourable decisions (made under that Act) that protect the crucial rights of individuals, including freedom of expression and freedom of religion.

According to the BBC, critics of the Act have said that European courts have strayed into some areas, such as prisoners’ voting rights, that should be left to the British courts. Some news sources state that the Prime Minister, David Cameron, wants to dismantle the Act in order to sever the link between British courts and the ECHR. Introducing a British Bill of Rights would mean that the British Supreme Court would make the rulings – not the European Court in Strasbourg.

Celebrity opposition

Campaigners have been fighting to stop the abolition of the HRA; well-known personalities such as actor Benedict Cumberbatch, Simon Callow, and Indira Varma are among the celebrities who are opposing the move. According to the Huffington Post, Cumberbatch said: “Our Human Rights Act belongs to all of us. It's not for politicians to pick and choose when they apply or who deserves protection. Repealing it will mean less protection against state abuse or neglect, and weaken the rights of every single one of us—and the vulnerable most of all.”

“Our Human Rights Act protects every one of us—young or old, wealthy and poor, civilian or soldier,” stated Varma. “It is a cause for pride and celebration, not a pawn in a dangerous political game. It is ours and no one is taking it from us without a fight.” Callow added: “The Human Rights Act is one of the few laws that enables us to hold the powerful to account. No surprise then that the Government wants to scrap it…. we abandon it at our peril.”

A dangerous move

Withdrawing from the ECHR is a problematic move because it sets a dangerous precedent for other countries where the state of human rights is abysmal. Additionally, having the existing set of international standards ensures that individual nations don’t find/create loopholes in a justice system. If the Bill were introduced, then it’s likely that people who want to bring human rights cases to the ECHR would have to go to a court in Strasbourg, which would cause an unnecessary delay in such cases.

The HRA establishes crucial laws such as the right to an education and the right not to be discriminated against. The Act also requires governments to provide free and fair elections. If the British Bill of Rights is introduced, how will the government ensure that people will still be provided with a fair legal avenue to challenge abuse neglect, or mistreatment?

The future of the Human Rights Act

Although the proposed legislation on the new Bill has been delayed, ministers have stated that they are committed to the plans and are in the process of consulting on all the issues involved. The Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, will be in charge of implementing the reforms.

According to a report by The Guardian, the UK’s most senior female judge said that her fellow justices would regret any decision by the government to repeal the Act. She also said that withdrawing from the human rights court in Strasbourg would require Britain to leave the EU. The latter itself would come with a host of political, legal, and social complications.

Civil liberty advocates have expressed concern that the proposed changes would erode all the fundamental freedoms that are essential to a thriving democracy. The Act has provided safety and equality for countless people; if it is replaced, those freedoms are no longer safeguarded. And the effectiveness (or restrictiveness) of its successor, the British Bill of Rights, remains to be seen.

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