Kim Harrison from Slater and Gordon explain why how the Human Rights Act protects Children

As we celebrate 15 years of the Human Rights Act, we can reflect on the good work it has done to protect some of the most vulnerable members of our society, especially children.

When the articles of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) were enshrined into our domestic law in October 2000 by way of the Human Rights Act, it meant a major change in the way children and their families could challenge decisions made by public bodies.

Before the Human Rights Act was implemented, courts in England and Wales couldn’t directly apply the articles of the ECHR and people who wanted to challenge state decisions needed to apply to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to enforce their human rights.

When the Human Rights Act was implemented 15 years ago, it imposed upon “public authorities” such as the courts, prisons and local authority children’s services departments a positive duty to protect children and a duty to ensure their decisions do not breach a child’s human rights.

Both myself and other human rights solicitors at Slater and Gordon have seen first-hand how the Human Rights Act has helped protect the rights of vulnerable children. The Act has helped children suffering from abuse seek justice against local authorities who have been negligent in their duty to protect them from harm. We have also seen how the Act has been used to protect children who were at risk from physical or sexual abuse.

Abuse of Children in Care

Under the Human Rights Act, local authorities are under a duty to protect children who may be at risk from harm.

In cases where a local authority removes a child from the family home because they are at risk, there is a continuing duty on the local authority to protect the child’s human rights whilst they are in care.

At Slater and Gordon, we have seen how the Human Rights Act has been used to help children pursue claims against local authorities in what is known as “failure to remove” litigation, i.e. where the local authority has failed in its duty to remove them from a situation where they are suffering abuse.

Child Sexual Exploitation

Our domestic law has developed and evolved over the years thanks to the Human Rights Act.

A landmark Court of Appeal judgement in 2005 (commonly known as the “JD decision”) removed the “blanket immunity” that local authorities once had in respect of claims being brought against them for being negligent whilst carrying out their statutory duty to protect children. In this case, the Court of Appeal ruled that, where child abuse is suspected, the interests of the child are paramount.

Horrific cases of child sexual exploitation and grooming have made news headlines in recent years and we have successfully pursued claims on behalf of children against local who failed to protect them from abuse.

Without the JD decision and the Human Rights Act, such litigation would not have been possible.

Abuse of Children in Prison

Prisons wield immense power over child detainees and it’s a tragic fact that many child prisoners who suffer abuse in prison do so in silence, either because they are frightened to speak out or they think nobody will believe them.

Degrading treatment of children in prison is also seen with the ongoing problem of routine strip-searching, something which the Howard League for Penal Reform has described as “an unnecessary, degrading and barbaric practice.”

Article 3 of the Human Rights Act provides that nobody should be subject to inhuman or degrading treatment. For children in prison, this means they have a right not to be abused and, for the state, it means they have an obligation to prevent that abuse from happening in the first place.

At Slater and Gordon, we are proud to stand up for children’s rights and are proud to take part in the British Institute of Human Rights’ 15 Days of Action. We should celebrate the good work that the Human Rights Act has done for our society’s most vulnerable members.