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Human rights facts and fictions

Common human rights myths

There’s a lot of misunderstanding around the Human Rights Act. Many of us only hear about human rights when the media covers high-profile cases. All too often this involves the repeat of the same myths and misunderstandings. No wonder it’s hard to tell fact from fiction.

We seek to clarify 10 common myths below and clarify the rights and freedoms the Act covers.

‘Human rights law has been imposed on us by Europe’

Not true. The Human Rights Act was passed by our own Parliament back in 1998 with support from all the main political parties. The Act simply applies the European Convention on Human Rights to UK law. Moreover, the Convention itself was largely drafted by British lawyers after the Second World War; Winston Churchill was very influential in making it happen. The Convention has nothing to do with the UK’s membership of the European Union – it was created by the Council of Europe in 1950, a body set up to promote democracy, human rights and the rule of law in Europe.

‘Human rights are just for terrorists and criminals, not ordinary people’

The Human Rights Act protects everyone’s human rights. You, your family, friends or anyone you know, can be badly let down by unfair or careless treatment by a public authority. Examples would be a hospital not respecting a patient’s dignity or the police not investigating rape claims appropriately. The Act is relevant to many aspects of our lives and is there for you when you need it.

‘Human rights law stops terrorists and criminals from being properly punished’

This is completely false. There is nothing in the Human Rights Act that stops the courts from locking up convicted criminals and terrorists. Quite the opposite - the Act requires the police to investigate serious offences like murder, terrorism and rape. It can also hold the police responsible if they don’t carry out these investigations properly.

‘Human rights law stops us from deporting people who pose a threat to our national security’

This is not true in in the vast majority of cases. It does stop British courts from deporting people to countries where they face the real risk of torture or inhumane treatment. But torture is a special case. It can never be justified in civilised societies. In fact, the law already stopped Britain from deporting people in this situation before the Human Rights Act existed. Many people think it is better to prosecute them, and, if guilty, imprison them in Britain.

‘People now have a “human right” to anything’

Not the case. The Human Rights Act doesn’t protect an endless list of rights. It only protects 15 basic rights and freedoms. Take a look at the act here. The right to life, for example, or the right to marry and start a family. These are rights that are essential for our wellbeing. Many other countries protect a far broader range of rights. Our human rights laws do not, for example, create a right to live in the UK, or to receive benefits.

‘Human rights laws have resulted in some ridiculous decisions’

These ‘ridiculous’ decisions probably have little basis in truth. Heard the one about the man we couldn’t deport because he had a pet cat? It’s not true. The man’s cat was irrelevant – he was allowed to stay because the Home Office failed to apply its own guidance on unmarried partners of people settled in the UK. Or perhaps you heard about the burglar who, resisting arrest on a roof, enjoyed cigarettes and fried chicken given by police worried about his human rights? It was nothing to do with human rights – the police simply provided him with items as part of their normal negotiating tactics.

‘The Human Rights Act has cost British taxpayers millions and only benefits lawyers’

The Act has actually cut the costs of taking human rights cases to court. Before it was introduced, people had to go to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to enforce their rights. British courts now hear these cases, which is more efficient and costs less. But it’s not all about lawyers and courts. The Act encourages public authorities like schools and hospitals to provide better, fairer services. Its influence means that thousands of people have been able to protect their rights without the expense of going to court.

‘British courts are bound by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg’

False again. Our Human Rights Act is clear that British courts are not required to follow the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights without question. They only have to 'take account' of them. Judges can - and often do - depart from Strasbourg case law to take account of the United Kingdom's own laws and traditions. 

‘The European Court of Human Rights rules against the UK Government in most cases’

Not according to the statistics. The UK actually only loses around 1% of the claims brought against it in the European Court of Human Rights.

‘The Human Rights Act gives too much power to unelected judges’

Our Human Rights Act was voted for by elected politicians, not invented by judges. The Act gives judges the power to protect our rights against abuse by the Government or public authorities. But if one of the higher courts finds that a law in primary legislation breaches someone’s human rights, it cannot overturn it – it is referred to Parliament for a decision.

Last updated: 04 May 2016