Commission sounds alarm bell on risks to Human Rights Act

The Scottish Human Rights Commission has warned of potential risks to the protection of people’s rights in Scotland as a result of the UK Government’s latest review of the Human Rights Act.

In evidence submitted to the review, the Commission makes clear its concern that changes being considered could make it harder for people to enforce their rights here in Scotland.

Read the Commission’s full evidence report (PDF) and Executive Summary (PDF).

The Commission also highlights that changes to the Human Rights Act could undermine Scotland’s devolution arrangements, and run counter to work underway in Scotland to strengthen legal protection for people’s rights.

Judith Robertson, Chair of the Commission, said:

“The Human Rights Act helps people to enforce their rights and hold governments and public authorities to account for violations. It is an important law that helps make our rights a meaningful reality in areas like privacy, protection from violence and abuse, and family life.

“Yet the UK Government is once again looking to limit the Human Rights Act. The changes foreshadowed by this latest review could have regressive consequences for the protection of  everyone’s rights, whittling away legal protections, reducing access to justice, and leaving the state less accountable for its actions.

“We know from our work across Scotland that people here support stronger legal protection for all of our rights. They want to see human rights laws go forwards, not back. That’s the direction of travel both the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament have been taking, based on the foundations provided by the Human Rights Act.

“We hope this review will pay close attention to the evidence it hears from Scotland, and that the UK Government will refrain from developing any proposals that would weaken the Human Rights Act.”

Key legal points

  • The Human Rights Act currently asks courts to take account of European Court of Human Rights case law. This is pivotal in securing the full protection of the rights in the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) in line with our international obligations. Any change would risk unhelpfully divergent case law leading to less access to justice for individuals.
  • The domestic courts have acted appropriately in applying ECHR rights under the Act in a national context and should continue to be free to do so. This ensures state accountability for the implementation of rights at a national level.
  • Under the Act, the courts currently have an obligation to interpret legislation compatibly with ECHR rights. This secures compliance with ECHR rights, as intended by Parliament, in the least burdensome way for people themselves, government and Parliament.
  • The extra-territorial reach of the Act should be retained, in compliance with our obligation under the ECHR and following decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. This is essential to protect UK personnel from failures of the government to protect their rights abroad, and to prevent our authorities from breaching the fundamental rights of non-UK citizens under their authority and control.
  • The Act is a pillar of the constitutional framework of devolution in Scotland. ECHR rights are protected in Scotland under both the Act and the Scotland Act. Any change to the Act could upset this constitutional arrangement which has driven a developing human rights culture in Scotland.

Human Rights Act helps us to enforce our rights

The Act has had a significant positive impact on people across the UK in many areas, including in the following areas: children’s rights, disabled people’s rights, equality, health, justice, privacy, religion and belief, rights at work, seeking refuge, speech and protest and victims of crime.

Litigation under the Act has led to the following positive outcomes, amongst many more:

  • Police must effectively investigate rape claims
  • Disabled people and their families should have a say in decisions about their care
  • Hospitals must protect vulnerable patients at risk of suicide
  • Ending outdated and degrading prison conditions
  • Gay couples can’t be discriminated against in inheritance matters


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Notes to editors:

  1. The Human Rights Act in 1998, together with the Scotland Act, protects the rights that are contained in the European Convention on Human Rights in Scotland’s own laws.
  2. The Human Rights Act means that people can raise human rights issues in Scottish courts and it also places a duty on public bodies to comply with human rights in everything they do.
  3. The Independent Human Rights Act Review aims to consider how the Human Rights Act is working in practice, including its enforcement and whether any change is needed.
  4. More on the Commission’s past work on the Human Rights Act: Human Rights Act | Scottish Human Rights Commission.
  5. For examples of human rights case law in the UK see: 50 Human Rights Cases That Transformed Britain | EachOther