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Human Rights Act

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Legislation, enacted in 1998, that brought the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic law for the whole of the UK on 2 October 2000. In the past the use of the Convention was limited to cases where the law was ambiguous and public authorities had no duty to exercise administrative discretion in a manner that complied with the Convention.

The Act creates a statutory general requirement that all legislation (past or future) be read and given effect in a way that is compatible with the Convention. Section 3 provides that all legislation, primary and secondary, whenever enacted, must be read and given effect in a way that is compatible with Convention rights wherever possible.

The Act requires public authorities – including courts – to act compatibly with the Convention unless they are prevented from doing so by statute. This means that the courts have their own primary statutory duty to give effect to the Convention unless a statute positively prevents this. Section 7 gives the victim of any act of a public authority that is incompatible with the Convention the power to challenge the authority in court using the Convention, to found a cause of action or as a defence. The Act introduces a new ground of illegality into proceedings brought by way of judicial review, namely, a failure to comply with the Convention rights protected by the Act, subject to a “statutory obligation” defence. Secondly, it will create a new cause of action against public bodies that fail to act compatibly with the Convention. Thirdly, Convention rights will be available as a ground of defence or appeal in cases brought by public bodies against private bodies (in both criminal and civil cases). Section 7(5) imposes a limitation period of one year for those bringing proceedings.

However, only persons classified as “victims” by the Act are able to enforce the duty to act compatibly with the Convention in proceedings against the authority, and only victims will have standing to bring proceedings by way of judicial review. Most private litigants, at least in private law proceedings, will count as victims.

The Convention rights that have been incorporated into the Act are: Articles 2 to 12, 14, 16, 17, 18; Articles 1 to 3 of the First Protocol; Articles 1 and 2 of the Sixth Protocol; and the Thirteenth Protocol (individual rights are subjects of entries in this dictionary). See absolute right; qualified right.

The Act requires any court or tribunal determining a question that has arisen in connection with a Convention right to take into account the jurisprudence of the Strasbourg organs (the European Court and Commission of Human Rights and the Committee of Ministers). This jurisprudence must be considered “so far as, in the opinion of the court or tribunal, it is relevant to the proceedings in which that question has arisen”, whenever the judgment, decision, or opinion to be taken into account was handed down.

Section 19 provides that when legislation is introduced into Parliament for a second reading, the introducing minister must make a statement, either (1) to the effect that, in his view, the legislation is compatible with the Convention, or (2) that although the legislation is not compatible with the Convention, the government still wishes to proceed. If it is not possible to read legislation so as to give effect to the Convention, then the Act does not affect the validity, continuing operation, or enforcement of the legislation. In such circumstances, however, section 4 empowers the high courts to make a declaration of incompatibility. Section 10 and Schedule 2 provide a “fast-track” procedure by which the government can act to amend legislation in order to remove incompatibility with the Convention when a declaration of incompatibility has been made.


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