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Awareness of your rights under the law

The European Convention on Human Rights bestows a number of rights which are referred to as ‘human’ rights because it is argued that they apply to all people, regardless of their citizenship or other status. They are therefore subtly different from civil rights, although closely related in some ways. Such rights include the right not to be detained unlawfully; the right to marry and found a family (within the parameters of national law); and the right to practise one’s religion. The full list of rights is an extensive one (see the Resources Section for details of how to obtain information about these). The implementation of the Human Rights Act 1998 in October 2000 made the majority of the Convention’s rights a fundamental part of UK law. It is important to recognise that not all rights are absolute. In many cases, there are circumstances where an infringement of a person’s human rights can be justified in law. For example, the European Convention on Human Rights refers to the right to privacy and respect for family life. However, in relation to the authorities responsible for investigating allegations of child abuse, it is permissible for the privacy of family life to be intruded upon up to a point at least, provided that the staff involved observe certain guidelines which ensure that they do not intrude into family life more than is necessary for the purposes of ensuring that children are safe and free from harm. As with any matter relating to the law, things are not always entirely clear cut. There is always a great deal of scope for a degree of interpretation. Therefore, while some of these rights may seem to be clear cut in the abstract, trying to apply them to concrete situations can often be far more difficult and challenging. At the end of the day, it may require a court judgement to establish precisely whether a particular situation constitutes an infringement of human rights – although, of course, very many human rights issues will be dealt with without recourse to the formal legal system. None the less, it can be very useful to know, at least in broad outline, what your rights are, so that you can consider whether you need to take any steps if you feel that your rights are not being respected. If you are not aware of what your rights are, you are not really in a position to know whether you are being denied a particular right that you should be entitled to. Finally, it is important to note that the discussion here refers only to human rights – that is, those that come within the ambit of the European Convention on Human Rights. In addition to these, we also have other legal rights according to specific pieces of legislation. The protection afforded by the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention on Human Rights on which it is based, should therefore be seen as an important part of our rights but by no means the only part.

Dr Neil Thompson                        

Neil’s website and blog are at

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