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Project description

Our research explores the future of Human Rights Act in the UK, and the impact of Brexit and the UK’s relationship with Europe on Human Rights.

Primary participants

Thom Brooks Professor of law

Benedict Douglas Lecture in law

Helen Fenwick Professor of law

Alan Greene Lecture in law

Ian Leigh Professor of law

Fiona de Londras Professor of law

Roger Masterman Professor of law

Aoife O'Donoghue Senior lecturer in law

Gavin Phillipson  Professor of law

Ben Warwick  Graduate teaching assistant

Se-shauna Wheatle  Research associate

Alexander Williams Lecture in law

About the research

Following the UK's General Election, there has been increased attention to the prospect of changes to the Human Rights Act. However, changes have been mooted by the Conservative Party for some time. Researchers in Durham Law School have followed developments for many years and there are considerable depth and breadth of expertise on the Act and its operation.

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More about the research

The proposals raise issues of how satisfactorily the Human Rights Act currently operates, whether it initiates an appropriate relationship with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and the failings of the current regime.

There are also questions raised about what might replace the Human Rights Act. A 'Bill of Rights' or a 'British Bill of Rights' have been discussed, but a draft of the document is yet to be released. There is also debate about the motivations that are driving the reforms.


Relationship with Europe

Why are some politicians concerned with the European Court's influence?

The proposals in the Conservative manifesto, as set out by Helen Fenwick here, emphasise a perceived need for greater 'distance' between the European Court of Human Rights and the UK's courts. Elsewhere she writes, the idea of senior Conservatives "appears to be to seek to utilise the BoR to aid in increasing the autonomy of the UK Parliament in human rights’ matters".

It has also been argued by some in favour of reform that there has been 'mission creep' in the activities of the European Court of Human Rights. However, Alan Greene (with his co-author Kanstantsin Dzehtsiarou) has argued that this misrepresents the intention of the system, which was not seen as an 'endgame' but was set up to be capable of evolution.

Are UK Courts bound by the European Court of Human Rights?

The UK House of Lords and Supreme Court have generally favoured an inflexible approach to the interpretation of the section of the Human Rights Act (s2(1)) that requires UK courts to 'take into account' the case-law of the European Court. This inflexibility - known as the mirror principle - through permitting the content of domestic human rights laws to be effectively determined by an external source of law the European Court, has given rise to the suggestion that the European Court of Human Rights wields excessive influence over the UK laws.

However, Masterman also highlights that this rigid approach is not prompted by the Human Rights Act itself, but is a product of judicial interpretation. He supports a flexible approach and argues that amendment or repeal of the HRA is not required for courts to develop rights that are receptive to domestic as well as international influence.

Roger Masterman has written a briefing document on this topic, which you can read here.

Has the European Court sought compromise with the UK?

In 2012 Helen Fenwick suggested that the European Court of Human Rights might be appeasing the UK through its judgments in several cases. Helen argues that appeasement can be problematic, and she raises questions about the extent to which enhanced subsidiarity would ease the pressure on the European Court. Later, in 2015, she notes that the Court's less interventionist stance in several cases might point to a less confrontational Court, seeking compromise with the views of senior politicians.

Alan Greene notes that the European Court has an interest in keeping the UK on board. He argues that the court has worries about its legitimacy, and a UK exit would increase Russian hostility towards the Convention. Co-operation, he writes with his co-author Kanstantsin Dzehtsiarou, between the Court, national states, and legal and academic communities is essential to the legitimacy of the system. In addition, the concerns raised in the reform discussions about the Convention applying to soldiers abroad, neatly play to Russia's interest in avoiding accountability for actions in Ukraine.

Helen writes that after Brighton, senior Conservatives may be on the fence about whether to meet the European Court halfway, but also notes that it may be difficult for them to row back on their anti-Human Rights Act rhetoric.

Domestic Issues

Who has duties under the Human Rights Act?

This is a highly complex question. The basic answer is that the Act requires courts and tribunals, ‘core’ public authorities (for example, central and local government and the police), and ‘hybrid’ public authorities – private bodies who perform a mixture of public and private functions – to respect the ECHR. The meaning of a public function is a disputed issue, but Alexander Williams argues that it also unmasks a number of underlying matters that are complex in their own right. One such matter is whether hybrid public authorities can rely on the ECHR themselves.

Does the Human Rights Act contain 'alien' ideas?

There is a danger that the Act is seen as 'foreign' or 'alien'. Masterman (highlighting the comments of Lord Justice Laws), notes that a 'slavish attitude' to the European Court's case-law can limit 'a sense of domestic ownership over the Convention rights'.

Phillipson argues that the Human Rights Act has both influenced the UK's constitution and that the approach to the Human Rights Act has been influenced by the UK's constitutional principles. This relationship, he notes, is a highly complex one.

On occasion, the Act is criticised for affording too many rights to terrorists. However, a specialist in counter-terrorism laws, Fiona de Londras (with her co-authors Bates, Bell, O’Cinneide, Dzehtsiarou, Edward, Greene, Johnson, Lock), notes that this tends to misrepresent the flexibilities built into the European Convention system. In fact, the European Court has not always enforced 'optimal' rights for such individuals in such scenarios.

Where else can human rights protections come from?

In a recent article Roger Masterman and Se-shauna Wheatle highlight the role of the common law in providing human rights protections. They trace the UK courts' use of the common law prior to the existence of the Human Rights Act. Some weaknesses in the common law approach meant that the Human Rights Act was 'speedily embraced as a panacea'. In the face of increased criticism of the Act, judges have begun to reassert the importance of the common law. The UK Supreme Court has adjudged that the common law should be the 'starting point' of enquiry.

Alan Greene specifically addresses the role that classic administrative law or judicial review plays in protecting rights. He notes that this is still the predominant route for such individual protections, but that this route is also increasingly under threat. Misconceptions about the role of judicial review and hostile attitudes mean that the next five years are likely to bring further changes to the system.

Why have human rights not been accepted in the UK?

Benedict Douglas argues that the major modern and historic human rights documents recognise human rights as inalienably and universally attaching to individuals by virtue of their humanity. However, this justification for rights possession in dignity or any other foundational human characteristic is absent from the Human Rights Act. This lack of recognition of a deeper fundamental basis for Convention rights, he argues, underlies both the euro-sceptic and party political hostility to rights in the UK and the lack of ownership of rights amongst the public.

What about Northern Ireland?

The Human Right Act is the mechanism for enshrining the European Convention rights that are required by the peace deal, the Good Friday Agreement. This Good Friday Agreement is central to the settlement in Northern Ireland and is a bilateral international treaty between the British and Irish governments (as has been highlighted in this briefing paper from Aoife O'Donoghue and Ben Warwick). Caution and many consultations on the reforms are needed before the Human Rights Act is modified as regards Northern Ireland.

Briefings and Blogs

What is the Human Rights Act?

Human Rights Law experts from Durham Law School answer topical questions on the Human Rights Act and the prospect of changes to the legislation. Concerns about the relationship with the European Court of Human Rights as well as the human rights issues around deportation, immigration, and war are all addressed in this ‘The UK’s Human Rights Act: FAQs’.

Are UK Courts Bound by the European Court of Human Rights?

The current Bill of Rights debate is partly premised on the suggestion that the ‘mirror principle’ permits the ECtHR too great an influence over UK laws. Yet, as this briefing ‘ Are UK Courts bound by the European Court of Human Rights?’  and this blog ‘The Mirror Crack’d’ post from Roger Masterman discuss, this mirroring is not prompted by the HRA itself, but is a product of judicial interpretation. There is also growing evidence that domestic courts are willing to depart from Strasbourg case law.

In a different take, Helen Fenwick explores the multiple roles that this part of the Human Rights Act is expected to play and asks, 'What’s Wrong with s.2 of the Human Rights Act?'.

Handing back autonomy to the UK in human rights matters?

This blog ‘The Conservative anti-ECHR stance and a British Bill of Rights: rhetoric and reality’ post from Helen Fenwick addresses the current ways that the Human Rights Act operates and why some might see it as constraining the UK's autonomy. It looks at the role the Bill of Rights Commission played as a coalition government compromise, and how some Conservatives have reacted. It concludes that even a new Bill of Rights is unlikely to meet the Prime Minister's anti-ECHR and anti-HRA rhetoric.

Is the European Court of Human Rights appeasing the UK?

Helen Fenwick suggested in ‘An appeasement approach in the European Court of Human Rights?’ that the European Court of Human Rights might be seeking to ward off criticisms from the UK through their judgments in several cases. The cases considered in the blog may indicate appeasement as the Court reverses certain trends in reasoning, and maybe intended to deflect the criticism that the Court has been too interventionist. However, the European Court's softening approach can also be seen as a move towards a compromise position which the Conservative party might just accept. Helen Fenwick comment on this in ‘The Conservative stance in the 2015 election on the UK’s relationship with the Strasbourg Court and its jurisprudence – bluff, exit strategy or compromise on both sides? (Part II)

The Bill of Rights Commission

In 2011 the coalition government established a Bill of Rights Commission to investigate the creation of a UK Bill of Rights and to advise on reform of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The Commission issued its Final Report in December 2012. A key theme in the Report is the notion that one cannot discuss rights without also discussing responsibilities.

Read the briefing ‘The Bill of Rights Commission’s Report Where Are We Now?’ from Alexander Williams, Helen Fenwick and Roger Masterman on the Commission's report. 

You can also read a blog from Helen Fenwick post on the Commission and its political implications in ‘The Report of the Bill of Rights Commission: disappointing Conservative expectations or fulfilling them?’.

Human Rights Reform and Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland has a particularly important relationship with the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights. The Good Friday Agreement (a key part of the Northern Irish peace process) enshrined a fundamental role for the Convention in moderating the values of plurality and equality in the ‘new’ Northern Ireland. This briefing argues that disturbing the Human Rights Act and unpicking the terms of the Good Friday Agreement is an unwise move.

You can read the briefing from Aoife O'Donoghue and Ben Warwick, ‘Human Rights Reform and Northern Ireland’ 

There is also a range of issues raised by the different stances taken on human rights in Scotland and Wales.

Bringing Rights Home (Again)?

In this audio clip ‘Reflections on the Government's Plans to Repeal the Human Rights Act 1998’, Ian Leigh talks about the genesis of the Human Rights Act and the implications of the potential reforms for UK courts. He points to the judgments of senior judicial figures which assert the flexibility that is already built into the Act.

Consequences of repealing the Human Rights Act

In this audio clip (from 9.25) Helen Fenwick discusses the consequences of repealing the Human Rights Act with conversational podcasters 'Inform My Opinion'. Elsewhere, Helen’s blog ‘Reform, Repeal, Replace? Helen Fenwick: Backing Down on HRA Repeal in the Queen’s Speech? De-railed Plans for Rapid Introduction of a British Bill of Rights’ on the Conservative Party's shelved plans to repeal the Human Rights Act in the first 100 days of government. In the same post, she offers some reflections on the direction that the reforms might now take.