The development of Human Rights legislation

The main piece of legislation which relates to Human Rights is the Human Rights Act 1998 which was implemented on the 2nd October 2000. This important Act makes the European Convention on Human Rights an integral part of the UK legal system. Prior to the implementation of this Act, people whose human rights were being infringed would have needed to apply to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in order to get redress. This was a costly and time-consuming process, and therefore it was never likely to be widely used. However, this new development in the law allows more and more people to seek justice if they feel that their human rights have been infringed in some way. It is important to recognise that the Act specifies a number of specific rights – for example, the right to privacy and respectful family life. Some people have misunderstood the nature of the law and assume that it applies to anything which could broadly be defined as a human right. This is not the case. The Act is quite specific about what is included and anything which is not mentioned in the Act is therefore not covered by this law. There may be things that you feel should be recognised as fundamental human rights, but it remains the case that the Human Rights Act 1998 applies only to specific rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. It is important to recognise also that the Act does not apply to everybody, although its remit is very wide indeed. It applies to ‘public authorities’. This term means more than just local authorities or councils, it refers to anybody which fulfils a public duty. This therefore includes central and local government departments and bodies such as, the police, the fire service, health authorities, the armed forces and so on. However, it can also be seen to apply to organisations which fulfil public duties even if they are not public bodies in their own right. For example, the prison service is clearly a public body but when the private company, Group 4, is carrying out prison service type work (for example transporting prisoners from prison to court) then, in that respect, they too are acting as a public authority and are therefore covered by the Act. In addition, it is important to recognise that courts and tribunals count as public authorities. Therefore, if people are involved in any process relating to a court or tribunal, then the Human Rights Act will apply to those proceedings. This extends the applicability of the Act to a wide range of people, and is therefore a very significant aspect of its scope. The law offers considerable protection but it is not comprehensive. The Government’s intention is that over time, the UK will develop a culture of human rights, and so this law will not be simply an Act of Parliament amongst others, but rather a foundation stone for a significant change in the legal system and political and civic life more generally.

Dr Neil Thompson                        

Neil’s website and blog are at

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