The government’s plans to overhaul flagship Human Rights Act
New bill of rights set to replace existing human rights legislation
The government plans to overhaul the Human Rights Act by replacing it with a Bill of Rights that it says will restore “common sense” to how the law is applied in the UK.
The new bill would “protect essential rights” such as “the right to a fair trial and the right to life” which are “a fundamental part of a modern democratic society”, according to the government proposals. It would seek to “reverse the mission creep that has meant human rights law being used for more and more purposes, and often with little regard for the rights of wider society”.
Boris Johnson promised reform to the 1998 Human Rights Act in the Conservative Party’s 2019 manifesto, where he pledged to update the act to ensure “proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government”.
Dominic Raab, the justice secretary and deputy prime minister, said in December that the changes would “reinforce parliament’s role as ultimate decision maker, and strengthen rights such as freedom of speech”, reported the Financial Times. Many Conservative MPs have also criticised the existing legislation as encouraging “spurious” legal challenges against the government.
But “lawyers and campaign groups have expressed alarm at the proposals”, arguing that they “will limit the duties on public authorities to protect people’s human rights, and make it harder for individuals to bring court cases for alleged breaches”, said the paper.
The government proposals will “keep our human rights broadly as they are”, argued Alberto Costa, MP for South Leicestershire, and Adam Tomkins, a former Scottish Conservative MSP, in an article for The Times in February. They will “strengthen” aspects, such as a right to trial by jury, which will be “added to the corpus of human rights” and thereby “plugging a gap that, to a common lawyer, is all too glaring in continental charters of rights”, they wrote.
“And, in addition to this, the all-important right to freedom of expression will be boosted,” they added. “As one judge famously put it, the right to speak only inoffensively is not worth having. This needs to be underscored in legislation, to avert the risk that this country’s long-standing commitment to freedom of speech is not eroded under the pressure of any new censoriousness.”
Far from undermining the UK’s “commitment to freedom”, the reforms will serve “only to strengthen it”, they concluded.
The government has already outlined plans to “crack down” on foreign-born criminals’ attempts to resist deportation from the UK by invoking the Human Rights Act, reported the FT. It has also set out plans to limit the steps that must be taken by public authorities – such as the police – to protect human rights, which are ensured by Article 2 of the existing legislation, which protects the right to life.
While the government may think that UK human rights law “needs rebalancing to emphasise the primacy of… British legal history” some legal minds and campaigners fear that a new bill of rights “could be a muddle”, said the BBC’s home and legal correspondent Dominic Casciani in December.
And that’s not just a warning from “lefty woke lawyers, as some on the right would have it”. The government’s own independent review has included an “astonishing 580 pages” of advice and warnings, which can be summed up in a few words: “don’t rush to change things if the evidence shows they don’t need fixing”.
‘Attack on freedoms’
Earlier this month, the Welsh and Scottish governments described the plans as an “ideologically motivated attack on freedoms and liberties”.
They called on the government to “listen to evidence from civil society and the legal profession and reverse its proposals”, arguing that Westminster was forging ahead with changes “despite its own Independent Review of Human Rights finding no good case for making significant changes”.
In a statement on the proposed reforms, the devolved governments highlighted how the Human Rights Act had been “of central importance in the fight for justice” following the Hillsborough disaster, as well as bringing to justice John Worboys, known as the “black cab rapist”, in the face of “serious failings” by the Metropolitan Police.
It is a fear echoed by humans rights group Liberty, who said the families of the 97 killed as a result of the Hillsborough disaster relied on Article 2 of the Human Rights Act to secure a fresh inquest, which concluded in 2016 that the supporters had been unlawfully killed, reported the FT.
But Raab has argued to the House of Commons justice committee that the so-called “positive obligations” imposed by Article 2 could have a “considerable impact on police resources” – such as the number of threat to life notifications the police are obliged to issue under the legislation when criminals faced death threats from rival gangs.