Human Rights Act 1998

From Academic Kids

The Human Rights Act 1998 is a United Kingdom Act of Parliament which received Royal Assent on November 9, 1998, and came into force on October 1, 2000. Its aim is to "give further effect" in UK law to the rights contained in the European Convention on Human Rights. The Act makes available in UK courts a remedy for breach of a Convention right, without the need to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

In particular, the Act makes it illegal for any public body to act in a way which is incompatible with the Convention, unless the wording of an Act of Parliament means they have no other choice. It also requires UK judges take account of decisions of the Strasbourg court, and to interpret legislation, as far as possible, in a way which is compatible with the Convention. However, if it is not possible to interpret an Act of Parliament so as to make it compatible with the Convention, the judges are not allowed to override it. All they can do is to issue a declaration of incompatibility. This declaration does not affect the validity of the Act of Parliament: in that way, the Human Rights Act seeks to maintain the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty (see: Constitution of the United Kingdom). An individual can still take his case to the Strasbourg court as a last resort.



The Human Rights Act applies to all public bodies within the United Kingdom, including central government, local authorities, and bodies exercising public functions. It also includes the Courts. However, it does not include Parliament, when it is acting in its legislative capacity.

Stronger provisions exist for the devolved Scottish administration under the Scotland Act 1998, which provides that the Scottish Executive and the Scottish Parliament have no power to do anything contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights.

The mechanics of the Act

The act specifies that an individual claimant, not a pressure group or similar organisation, must bring a case to court. The power passed to the court under the act takes two forms

Fault in primary legislation: If a case is brought and a piece of "primary legislation", i.e. an Act of Parliament, is found to be in conflict with the convention then the court issues a "declaration of incompatibility". The law in question is not immediately struck off the statue books, but ministers are given an opportunity to amend or revoke the law in Parliament. If ministers fail to take such remedial action, the complainant may take the case to the European Court. If the European Court finds in favour of the claimant, the UK Government has obligations under international law to amend the offending legislation.
Fault in secondary legislation: If any Secondary Legislation is found to be incompatible with the Convention, the court has the right to strike off the offending legislation, provided doing so does not conflict with any primary legislation.

For a summary of the rights actually recognised under the law, see the European Convention on Human Rights article.

Well-known cases involving the Human Rights Act

The first case invoking the act was brought by The Times in October 2000 which sought to overturn a libel ruling against the newspaper involving the Lee Clegg murder case.

Naomi Campbell and Sara Cox both sought to assert their right to privacy under the act. Both cases were successful for the complainant (Campbell's on the second attempt) and an amendment to British law to incorporate a provision for privacy is expected to be introduced.

The James Bulger murder case tested whether the Home Secretary, a politician, was the right person to have the final say on the length of life sentences, or whether this infringed the perpertrators' right to a fair trial. The European Court found on the side of Bulger's killers Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. The 2003 Criminal Justice Act removed much of the power to set sentences previously held by the Home Secretary.

On December 16 2004 the House of Lords held in A and Others v Secretary of State for the Home Department that the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, under whose powers a number of non-UK nationals were detained in Belmarsh Prison, was incompatible with the Human Rights Act. This precipitated the enactment of the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 to replace the 2001 Act.

See also

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