New report casts doubt on need for UK Bill of Rights
27 Sep 2012
Human rights law has been the subject of considerable controversy over the past few years. A new report, released today by the British Academy Policy Centre, explores the options for a new UK Bill of Rights.
Last year’s ruling by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) that the UK government should end its blanket ban on prisoners voting, once again raised the thorny issue of the UK’s relationship with the European Court and whether the UK should have its own Bill of Rights. In response, the government set up an independent commission to review the issue. 'Human rights and the UK constitution’ – a new report, by the British Academy Policy Centre – finds that the current state of human rights law in the UK strikes a good balance between respect for democracy and the need to protect human rights, and attempting to recalibrate that balance may prove to be a difficult and thankless task.
‘Human rights and the UK constitution’ aims to clarify the central issues at stake in this debate such as the influence exercised by the European Convention on Human Rights over UK law, the provisions of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the role these have in British courts protecting individual rights. It explores how proposals to alter the existing legal framework would affect how human rights are protected within the UK’s un-written constitutional system. The report looks at the academic evidence for and against criticisms directed at the efficiency of the ECHR, and the nature of its relationship with the UK courts and Parliament.
Colm O’Cinneide, author of the report, says: “Getting the balance right between respecting the decisions of elected politicians and protecting individual rights can be difficult. The Human Rights Act was designed to give the courts a greater role in protecting individual rights, but it has received strong criticism from certain quarters and there have been calls for it to be replaced with a British Bill of Rights. But reform of the present system may be unnecessary. The current state of UK human rights law is both principled and workable as long as Parliament, the executive and the courts continue to engage constructively with one another.”
The report was steered by five British Academy Fellows - Vernon Bogdanor, John Eekelaar, David Feldman, Sandra Fredman and Conor Gearty - and also by Francesca Klug (LSE).
The report’s key findings on a potential Bill of Rights are that:
- Elected politicians have the power to opt out of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), but any attempt to ‘de-incorporate’ Convention rights from UK law and break the link with Strasbourg, will give rise to serious legal complications, and may be incompatible with the UK’s international commitments, in particular the recent Brighton Declaration;
- A new Bill of Rights could expand human rights protection beyond that offered by the ECHR. However, if it did, this would be more likely to extend the role of the judiciary in protecting rights, rather than rein it in, as many critics of the Human Rights Act would like;
- Any expanded Bill of Rights should be the product of an extended consultative process that permits disadvantaged groups to participate fully in the process;
- The current state of human rights law in the UK appears to be compatible with constitutional principles. It also appears to strike a defensible balance between respect for democracy and the need to protect individual rights.
‘Human rights and the UK constitution’ launches today and is accessible to download from the British Academy website.
- For more information or interviews, please contact Kate Rosser Frost, Press & PR Manager at the British Academy on email@example.com or 020 7969 5263 / 07931 227 451.
- The British Academy, established by Royal Charter in 1902, is the national body that champions and supports the humanities and social sciences. It aims to inspire, recognise and support excellence and high achievement across the UK and internationally.
- The British Academy Policy Centre draws on funding from ESRC and AHRC, oversees a programme of activity, engaging the expertise within the humanities and social sciences to shed light on policy issues, and commissioning experts to draw up reports to help improve understanding of issues of topical concern. This report has been peer reviewed to ensure its academic quality. Views expressed in it are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily endorsed by the British Academy but are commended as contributing to public debate. For more information, please visit www.britac.ac.uk.
- Colm O’Cinneide, author of ‘Human rights and the UK constitution’ is a Reader in Law at University College London, specialising in human rights, comparative constitutional and anti-discrimination law. He is currently Vice-President of the European Committee of Social Rights and a member of the Blackstone Chambers Academic Panel. Colm has served as specialist legal adviser to the UK Joint Committee on Human Rights. His current publications being completed include papers on the constitutional ‘place’ of equality within EU law, the possibilities of giving effective legal protection to socio-economic rights and the impact of human rights norms on national constitutional systems.