Information

The Human Rights Act and the British Bill of Rights

The Human Rights Act

The Human Rights Act 1998 came into force in October 2000. It is one of the principal ways that internationally-recognised human rights are given legal effect in the UK. 

The Act means that vitally-important safeguards set out in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) are available to everyone. In particular:

  • all public organisations, such as the government, councils, hospitals, courts, the police, and other bodies that carry out public functions, must act compatibly with the Convention rights
  • individuals can take human rights cases to UK courts in order to obtain an effective remedy. They can also take them to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, after the national courts have issued a final judgment

In Scotland, human rights protections are also built into the devolution settlement by the Scotland Act 1998. Legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament is not law if it is incompatible with the rights defined in the Human Rights Act. Scottish Government ministers have no power to act in ways that are incompatible with those rights.

The Scottish Government regards the Human Rights Act as one of the most important and successful pieces of legislation ever passed by the UK Parliament. The Act has a 20-year track record of delivering justice and rights for all, including for some of the most vulnerable people in society. 

Retaining the Human Rights Act is essential for the protection of human rights in Scotland and across the UK as a whole. The UK must also remain fully committed to the ECHR and to membership of the Council of Europe

Independent Human Rights Act review

In December 2020, the UK Government established an Independent Human Rights Act Review (IHRAR) panel to consider whether changes should be made to the Human Rights Act.

In our response to the IHRAR’s call for evidence, we made clear that any attempt to erode or undermine the Human Rights Act would be robustly opposed. A summary of our response is also available. 

The IHRAR received responses from a wide range of civil society organisations, academic experts and experienced legal practitioners from across the UK, as well as from the UK’s three National Human Rights Institutions. The overwhelming weight of evidence from these responses demonstrated that the Human Rights Act has been highly successful and effective.  

In its own report, the IHRAR panel made a number of recommendations but found no convincing case for a radical overhaul of the Human Rights Act.  

UK Government proposals to replace the Human Rights Act

In December 2021, the UK Government published a consultation document on new proposals to replace the Human Rights Act with a new “Bill of Rights”. The proposals largely ignore the findings of the IHRAR panel and the evidence it received.

In March 2022, we published our response to the UK Government’s consultation paper. This response reiterated that the Scottish Government fundamentally disagrees with the idea that the Human Rights Act should be replaced by a “modern Bill of Rights”. 

Our overriding concern is that the strong existing protections delivered by the Human Rights Act and by the UK’s status as a full state party to the European Court of Human Rights will be undermined and eroded. Rather than replacing the Human Rights Act, the UK Government should focus on making rights real for everyone, across the whole of UK society.

In addition, the Human Rights Act is woven directly into the fabric of Scotland’s constitutional settlement. Changes to the existing statute could therefore have potentially significant implications for Scotland’s devolved institutions. The Scottish Government believes that no changes affecting Scotland should be made without the explicit consent of the Scottish Parliament.

We will carefully examine the detail of any legislation brought forward by the UK Government and will consider what further action should be taken in order to safeguard and protect human rights in Scotland.

The Scottish Government’s longstanding support for the Human Rights Act

The Scottish Government has consistently made clear its support for the Human Rights Act in response to UK Government proposals for “reform”. For example, see:

We will continue to strongly oppose any proposals which would have the effect of altering or undermining the principal legal and constitutional protections which have so successfully safeguarded and advanced human rights throughout the UK over the last two decades.

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