Why Does UK Human Rights Law Matter?

This question is worth asking because, as reported recently in the news, there are some among us who feel that the UK’s Human Rights Act 1998 ought to be repealed and not replaced.

What about those countless people who, due to disability or age or status or sexual orientation or gender reassignment, have found themselves the victims of discrimination that has eroded their dignity and self-worth? What about those with mental health problems who have been detained unlawfully by our Mental Health Act? What about those women who find that their healthcare provisions don’t meet their needs as they go through pregnancy and childbirth? Surely such individuals might want this state of affairs reformed rather than abolished completely.

Well, yes – but it’s not that simple.

An experienced human rights lawyer in the UK would say. We are all human, after all. But when it comes to law, there are two potential ways in which this can be significant – one positive the other negative. The principle of equality is a good example of this dichotomy.

The principle itself is incredibly important in society for various reasons – but it’s also open to exploitation by those who do not have our best interests at heart. This has led some countries to restrict the principle so that only certain groups of people may benefit from it. It sounds fair enough on paper even if it doesn’t feel that way in practice sometimes – but the key issues here are how you define these “certain groups” and what protection exists against someone being disadvantaged because they belong to a group that isn’t protected. In short, you need to be able to show that a certain group of people has been disadvantaged as a result of being part of this discriminated against the group – and I’m pretty sure there are those who would not have much trouble defining such groups in order to allow them to discriminate.

It’s the same principle with human rights law. It is a broad framework that requires society to take positive steps so as not to do harm or cause someone’s dignity and self-worth to erode even further. Once again, it sounds fair enough on paper but without sufficient protection for those who require it then it can become an open door for abuse or mistreatment by those who want an excuse.

So, what then? Do we throw out this system and allow everyone to discriminate against each other at will? Certainly not! What we need is a stronger framework that balances the principle of equality with the principle of non-discrimination. We also need a legal mechanism that ensures people can’t be discriminated against in certain circumstances – without having to come up with lists of types of discrimination that are deemed acceptable or unacceptable under law. This leads us to our Human Rights Act, brought into effect by Labour’s Human Rights Act 1998.

The main component is the European Convention on Human Rights which is overseen by the European Court of Human Rights – part of the Council of Europe, a 47-country body based in Strasbourg. The difference between the ECHR and HRA lies in the following quote: “The European Convention on Human Rights is an international treaty which imposes upon the 47 Member States of the Council of Europe strict obligations, in respect of cruel and unusual punishment, slavery, discrimination and other civil liberties.”

Effectively, the ECHR is an international treaty that we’ve signed up to – and that means that if you want to say that human rights law isn’t worth protecting then you might as well say the same about our treaty obligations. On a more positive note, this means it’s harder for politicians here to alter our human rights protections… not impossible by any stretch of the imagination but certainly more difficult than eroding them through one-sided changes or public appeals such as those I made mention of earlier.

We need to keep in mind what these legal provisions mean to people who have spent many years being disadvantaged because they don’t fit into “the right category” or being denied justice because their case wasn’t handled properly. Our human rights laws have been used in many cases so as to allow people to live a life free from fear and with sufficient support when they need it most.