18 October 2021

Scroll to the end of this blog to watch a video version of this blog from our Director, Sanchita Hosali

Well whoops, I’ve gone and done it! He is after all our new Justice Secretary, the government’s minister in charge of our justice systems, including future policy and law reform on our Human Rights Act and all the legal ways we can hold government and public bodies to account.  Safe to say he’s not the biggest fan of our current Human Rights Act (somewhat unsurprisingly, I suppose, power of any political persuasion isn’t always keen on limits). With all the talk about “overhauling” and the almost “sleight of hand” of trying to make it about the “E-word” and other distractions, I want to talk about something different … people and power. Our (yes, ours, us) Human Rights Act is about people, what we need to live good lives, with protection from and the support of the state. So, let’s talk about people, not the state. People who benefit from our Human Rights Act every day.

I wanted this to be a short and snappy read but as I’ve been writing I’ve been reflecting and actually no, this is really important stuff, and it deserves a few extra minutes of time.

At its core, our Human Rights Act is a law about people and power. It sets out our rights as people living in the UK; a fairly modest list of 16 protections, but ones which are so fundamental to being able to live an equal and dignified life. Whether this is the right to life, to live free from harm, to make decisions about our lives and relationships, to liberty, to meet with other people, to think what we like. (And because it’s a law about practical everyday stuff, not just theoretical niceties, our law recognises that many of these rights are not absolute, so they can be balanced or limited to ensure we can all live well with each other, taking into account the inevitable conflicts of humans living in societies).  

 

A bit of detail on the power …

Crucial detail about how the law works rarely (deliberately?) features in the simple, repetitive narratives used by those determined to change how they are held to account. And that is whether we’re talking about Mr Raab or his predecessors since the passing of the Human Rights Act in 1998 (make no mistake, governments of other political colours have also attacked the laws that limit their power).. Oops, I’ve broken the golden rule again…

Importantly, our Human Rights Act is also about responsibilities. It sets out the legal duties on those with government power to uphold people’s rights, balancing non-absolute rights appropriately in their decisions, polices, services, etc. That means the responsibilities of Mr Raab’s (whoops!) Justice Department, or Ash’s local authority housing office, the primary school Rosie heads up, or the police service where Kem walks the beat.

When these people with public power risk our rights, whether deliberately or because of systemic failures, our Human Rights Act means we can hold them to account. That doesn’t always mean we go off to court (important though that can be). In fact, courts are the last place we end up, because the legal duties mean we can talk, advocate, and negotiate for better solutions. Just as we do when things happen that we don’t agree with, but our Human Rights Act means that rather than talking about unfairness, we can have the backing of the law to talk about how something may be risking our rights and ask about how the legal duty to uphold rights has been considered. If things are urgent or if the risks can’t be discussed and resolved, then yes we can take legal action, bringing our own cases, to be decided in courts here at home. And let’s be clear it is our Human Rights Act that means our judges here at home decide these cases. Whilst judges can make important legal rulings on human rights issues, if a law needs to be changed because it breaches our rights, then it is for our elected representatives in parliament to change the law.  Parliament means all the MPs and peers, not simply the government. Judges decide if the government has broken the law, parliament decides if the law needs to change; this is way our country works, because the government shouldn’t get to mark its own homework, whether that’s on human rights or other fundamental issues to our democracy. (Here’s our webinar on how our Human Rights Act fits in with the UK’s democracy and speaking up for our protections).

 

Us, people …

So that’s a bit about how our Human Rights Act works. I’m always a bit hesitant about whether to include it when writing or talking about the future of our law. The short snappy comms part of me says don’t drone on. The person who wants to empower through education says, but there are so few opportunities for us to learn about how our legal protections actually work. The playing field of these debates feels so skewed, relying on slivers of truth and banking on a lack of confidence to challenge.

Ultimately, it’s vital that, when those with legal responsibilities to uphold our rights, like government, are talking about changing the laws that enable this accountability, we can engage from an informed position. So often, those with power rely on simple, provocative, narratives with kernels of truth, but not the whole story, relying on not enough of us knowing or feeling confident to challenge. That’s a risk we can’t take when our fundamental rights are at risk.  

And the information that you’ll rarely hear in these big debates is the stories of people, every day people, using our Human Rights Act in every day ways to help them, their loved ones and those they support to live a decent life. Nothing extravagant, just a life with basic dignity and respect.

So, if, as Mr Raab suggests, supporting women who’ve experienced domestic abuse is so important (and it is), then we should be hearing from women like Jas*. For her, learning about our Human Rights Act and how we can use the law in our everyday lives gave her the confidence to know that it is not okay that people and systems have failed her, and that she can hold them to account. It empowers support workers like Anna* to better advocate with and for women like Jas who are too often failed by those with public power.  

 

 

 You can visit the website, Know Your Human Rights for Survivors of Domestic Abuse, made with the support of Jas and Helen here.

And when legal cases are taken, because of failings in the police to effectively investigate and stop violence against women, it is our Human Rights Act which makes that possible (like this case, brought by 2 women, survivors of serial rapist John Warboys, holding the police to account).

Our Human Rights Act can help each of us have a voice, and secure real and meaningful change. Just ask Kirsten, the single parent of an autistic son who, as a child, was restrained, secluded in “rip-proof” clothing (think uniform in a locked, bare room), for whom our Human Rights Act is incredibly powerful in helping challenge these terrible situations. Or Fazeela, a social worker who makes use of our Human Rights Act every day when making life-altering decisions about people’s care and support. These are the voices of everyday people that get left out when those with power make sweeping statements about changing our protections that hold them to account.

Like any law our Human Rights Act isn’t a magic wand, it doesn’t by its existence create a world where everyone’s rights are upheld. But what it does do is give us, people, the power to make that happen. If we’re working in public bodies we can be using the law every day to make better decisions that support people’s rights. If we’re advocating with or for people, we can be more powerful in calling for their legal rights to be upheld, rather than simply asking for fairness. And as people, we can talk to those in power and ask not simply for compassion or special treatment, but to know that we are human beings entitled to have our legal rights met, and for those with power to be accountable. What we need is more use of our Human Rights Act, so this becomes everyone’s experience.

So rather than analyse Mr Raab’s comments and pick them apart with some facts and myth-busting (which is almost too easy), I’d much rather tell you Why Our Human Rights Act Matters. And it’s pretty simply. Our Human Rights Act matters for mothers like Kirsten, for support workers like Anna, for survivors of abuse like Jas, for social workers like Fazeela. For you, all the people you care about, all the people you don’t. Everyone. Because our Human Rights Act is about us and our power, we need to protect and celebrate that.

 

If you want to join us in telling the stories that matter, be part of the Why Our Human Rights Act Matters movement, here:

 

 *Names changed to protect anonymity