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The Human Rights Act is often in the news. 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.

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 the UK 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 and putting them into 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. As Lady Hale the former President of the Supreme Court said in the famous Cheshire West case:


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.

The Human Rights Act and Devolution

The rights within the Human Rights Act, brought into UK law from ECHR are interwoven into the devolution arrangements in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The Scotland Act 1998, the Wales Act 1998 and the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (which is part of an international peace process) established devolved legislatures and administrations. Each devolved nation has a range of issues for which it is responsible, many of which impact on human rights.

All the devolution arrangements prevent the parliaments/assemblies in devolved nations from passing laws which may be incompatible with Convention rights, as set out in the HRA. If a court in the devolved nations finds a law to be incompatible with human rights, it can be disapplied, because such a law would be outside the powers delegated to those bodies (“ultra vires”) (this is not the same for the UK parliament which is sovereign). The mechanisms in the HRA and its position in devolution arrangements are part of what makes the HRA such an innovative, distinct piece of legislation. In devolved nations, like Scotland, the HRA is a crucial building block for increased rights protections. 

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; this means they can never be lawfully restricted. Others are non-absolute; this means there are certain circumstances in which a public official may be allowed to restrict a person's human rights. These situations are specific and will usually have to follow the lawful, legitimate and proportionate tests:

If a public official or body cannot meet these 3 tests then the restriction on human rights they want to put in place will not be lawful. 

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:

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 monthly eNews where you will join thousands of others in receiving our latest news, resources, events, policy and project updates straight to your inbox.