The Human Rights Act has been in the news a lot recently. But what does this law actually do and what does it mean for each of us, everyday? We explain why the Human Rights Act matters and how it protects all of us.

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What is the Human Rights Act? 

The Human Rights Act is the UK law that exists to ensure that everyone’s rights are respected and protected here at home. Our Human Rights Act takes 16 of the fundamental human rights, the UK helped write, in the European Convention on Human Rights and pulls them down into our law here at home. 

Why did we get a Human Rights Act?

Many of the ideas behind the Human Rights Act have been around for over 800 years. The Magna Carta, for example, was issued in England in June 1215 and was the first document to put into writing the principle that the king and his government was not above the law. You can find our timeline on the history of human rights here.

World War II was a stark example of what happens when there are no limits on power. Countries across the world came together to agree a set of rules that all governments should follow on how they treat people: human rights. The goal was to make sure that never again can any government (including an elected one) decide who matters and who does not. These “rules” were set down in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) 1948. The UDHR is the foundation for all human rights law, including the European Convention on Human Rights and our Human Rights Act.

The Human Rights Act 1998 was passed with cross-party support by parliament; it does not belong to any one particular political party. The Human Rights Act’s principal aim was to “bring rights home”, by taking 16 of the fundamental human rights in the European Convention on Human Rights and setting them out in our law here at home.    

Who is the Human Rights Act For?

The Human Rights Act, and the rights included in it, belong to everyone in the UK. The rights set out in the Act are not gifts from the government or rewards that you earn.

These rights cannot be taken away but some can be restricted. This doesn’t mean that in practice everyone has their rights respected all the time. And sometimes rights have to be restricted to protect a person or others from harm but the HRA provides a legal framework for this and helps ensure accountability.

For example, Lady Hale the former President of the Supreme Court said in the famous Cheshire West case:



What rights are in the Act?

There are 16 rights in the Human Rights Act.

Some of these rights are what we call, absolute rights, meaning they can never be lawfully restricted.

Others are non-absolute, meaning there are certain circumstances in which a public official might have to restrict an individual's right. These situations are very specific and have to be to protect the person or others from harm. In a situation where a public body is going to restrict a non-absolute right they must ensure that this is done lawfully, legitimately and proportionately. For example, in a situation where a person is a risk to themselves or others, their liberty might have to be restricted. This must be done according to the law, it must be for a legitimate aim and it must be the least restrictive means possible.

How Does the Human Rights Act Work?

The Human Rights Act works in three main ways:

What difference does the Human Rights Act Make?

Too often there is an assumption that the Human Rights Act is only about courts and legal cases. However, the duty on public authorities means that the Human Rights Act sets out to create a culture of respect for human rights. The Parliament’s Joint Committee of Human Rights has described this as a culture that:

“…fosters basic respect for human rights and creates a climate in which such respect becomes an integral part of our way of life and a reference point for our dealing with public authorities…in which all our institutional policies and practices are influenced by these ideas…

The building of a human rights culture …[depends] not just on courts awarding remedies for violations of individuals' rights, but on decision-makers in all public services internalising the requirements of human rights law, integrating those standards into their policy and decision-making processes, and ensuring that the delivery of public services in all fields is fully informed by human rights considerations.”

This means the Act is there to help public officials make difficult decisions and to support people and advocates to challenge decisions which might not be rights respecting.  

We have gathered some stories of human rights changing people's everyday lives and transforming organisations to show the real impact a human rights approach can have. 

Where can I find more information?

  • Read more about the Human Rights Act here.
  • Read about the future of the Human Rights Act here.
  • Keep up to date with our blog where you will get news and views from BIHR (and some guest bloggers), amplifying often unheard stories that should be part of our debates about the value of the Human Rights Act and human rights in the UK.
  • Sign up for our newsletter where you will join thousands of others in receiving our latest news, resources, events, policy and project updates straight to your inbox.