Britain has had a long history of rights-based legislation and charters. One of the pivotal documents of Western history, the Magna Carta (1215) was enacted almost 800 years ago, yet established several important rights such as habeas corpus, the right to trial by an appointed judge and limitations on the power of government officials. The Petition of Right (1628) reinforced habeas corpus and decreed that taxes could only be levied by the parliament. The Bill of Rights (1689) outlined a number of rights that individuals were deemed to possess, including the right to petition the monarch, to freely elect members of parliament and to own arms for their defence. Many of the rights in these cornerstone documents are reflected in subsequent bills of rights, such as that of the United States. Despite their great age these documents remain in force, except where superseded by new legislation, and they are occasionally referenced in court hearings and criminal defences.
Today, the main item of UK legislation protecting rights is the Human Rights Act (1998). The background to this statute is complex. Much of the movement to a human rights act emerged in the 1980s, during the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Many interest groups and notable individuals argued that Thatcher’s government had exceeded and misused its executive power during this period. A movement called Charter88 emerged, issuing this petition and calling on Britons to sign it; more than 80,000 would eventually do so. Theorists argued that existing rights statutes, such as the 1689 Bill of Rights, needed to be re-expressed in a modern context. The UK had been a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), an international treaty drafted in 1950 and enacted 1953, yet Britons could only claim breaches of the ECHR in the European Court of Human Rights – and this process was long, difficult and costly. A tide of legal experts and interest groups argued that the UK needed its own domestic human rights legislation, to ensure that future legislation, policies and conduct were compatible with the rights of individuals and that citizens could allege breaches of their rights in British courts rather than in Europe.
In 1997 the Blair Labour government issued a white paper, ‘Bringing Rights Home’, and introduced the Human Rights Bill into the parliament. It received royal assent in November 1998 and came into effect in October 2000. The fundamental purpose of the Act is that it protects the rights laid out in the ECHR, by making it unlawful for public bodies to contravene these rights. Among the bodies affected by the Act are the government, its departments, statutory authorities, local governments and the courts. The British parliament is not legally bound by the Act when drafting other legislation, however, MPs moving bills must issue – or refuse to issue – a statement declaring that the bill is compatible with the provisions of the Human Rights Act. The courts are required to interpret legislation and develop precedents that are compatible with the rights outlined in the Act. Amongst these rights are:
- The right to life, liberty and freedom from torture or degrading treatment.
- Freedom from slavery or compulsory labour.
- The right to a fair trial or hearing by an impartial body, if accused of a crime.
- The right to privacy within the home, family life and correspondence.
- The right to an education, to marriage and to participate in elections.
- The right to security of one’s home, property and possessions.
- Freedom from laws passed retrospectively.
- Freedom from discrimination.
If a British court declares that a person’s rights have been infringed, they may order a range of remedies, including issuing an injunction or an order for damages. If the court determines that another piece of legislation has contravened the Act, the court can make a judgement to this effect – however, this won’t mean that the legislation is invalid or unconstitutional. The matter is then referred to the parliament as to what action it might take, such as the amendment of the contravening legislation. British citizens also retain the right to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights where they have been unable to obtain satisfaction in the British legal system.