Changes to the Human Rights Act could ‘significantly impede individuals’ ability to hold the state to account’, say human rights campaigners. In its response to the Independent Human Rights Act Review (IHRAR), Liberty expressed concern that proposals being considered by the review could have a knock-on effect on access to justice and state accountability.
The IHRAR was launched in December 2020 to ‘examine the framework of the HRA (Human Rights Act)’ and consider ‘whether the HRA strikes the correct balance between the roles of the courts, the Government and Parliament’. This generated alarm from campaigners, who specifically voiced concerns that the IHRAR would curtail the ability of the courts to challenge public decision-making by way of Judicial Review.
In its response to a call for evidence, Liberty urges the panel to ‘affirm the importance of the Human Rights Act in its current form’, which would ‘be a necessary step towards strengthening our human rights frameworks and making access to justice a practical reality across the UK’.
Ayaz Manji, Liberty policy and campaigns officer, said: ‘We all want to live in an equal, just and fair society, where governments and public bodies act in our best interests. The Human Rights Act helps to ensure that by allowing ordinary people to challenge governments and public authorities when they get it wrong. Many people’s lives have been made better because of the HRA.’
Since its enactment in 1998, the Human Rights Act has allowed individuals to assert their rights directly in the UK Courts, enabling individuals to ‘challenge restrictive policies, to be treated with dignity by public authorities, and to secure justice for their loved ones’. As noted by the Liberty submission, prior to 1998, individuals facing a breach of their Convention rights would need to take their case to the Court in Strasbourg. This would take on average five years, and leave individuals facing costs in excess of £30,000.
Even in the event that the HRA were repealed, the UK would remain a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). IHRAR Chair Sir Peter Gross has done away with any fear that the review may lead to a departure from the ECHR, stating that ‘the review proceeds on the basis that the UK will remain a signatory to the convention.’ Individuals would still be able to assert their rights, but doing so would become much less practicable.
Liberty urges the review to consider the protection of human rights in the devolved nations, including Northern Ireland and Scotland. In a separate response to the call for evidence, academics from Queen’s University Belfast have argued that any amendments to the HRA could risk jeopardising the Good Friday Agreement. The submission notes that the UK’s ongoing adherence to the European Convention of Human Rights is a ‘significant part’ of the Agreement which cemented peace in Northern Ireland. ‘We consider the current review into the Human Rights Act to be neither welcome nor timely,’ said Professor Christopher McCrudden of QUB. ‘Any move that would be widely viewed as undermining the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and its strong commitment to the advancement and protection of human rights would be highly regrettable.’
Speaking to the Joint Human Rights Committee, Baroness Hale said of the review: ‘I don’t think there’s a problem and I don’t think there’s any need to fix it’. The former Supreme Court President rejected the argument that the courts risk impinging upon policy decisions, further stating: ‘the most the court can do is make a declaration of incompatibility. And that leaves it entirely up to Parliament to decide what, if anything, to do about it.’