Joint Committee On Human Rights Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

33.  Memorandum from Legal Action Group (LAG)

  We are pleased to have the opportunity of submitting evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights on the question of the desirability of a Human Rights Commission for the UK.

  The Legal Action Group (LAG), established nearly thirty years ago, is an educational charity which works to encourage equal access to justice for all members of society. It promotes understanding of law and practice within the field of social welfare law, through organising conferences and training courses and through publication of its magazine Legal Action and a wide range of legal handbooks.

  In the legal education field, LAG has made an important contribution to awareness of the new rights and responsibilities engendered by the incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights into domestic law. Last autumn, we held a major conference on the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA), aimed at legal practitioners, those in the legal policy field, and public sector employees. This was followed by a series of training courses focusing on the inter-relationship between the HRA and key areas of social welfare law. Significantly, LAG published Keir Starmer's legal handbook, European Human Rights Law, a text which has been highly commended for its clarity and comprehensiveness; the handbook has now sold nearly 12,000 copies. Our magazine, Legal Action, covers developments in human rights law and practice on a regular basis in all fields of social welfare law.

  We are thus in a position to observe that there is still a need to raise awareness about the implications of the HRA, both within public bodies and among the population as a whole. This view is reinforced by our experiences when dealing with members of the public who contact us in the hope of obtaining legal advice. We always refer such people elsewhere for assistance but anecdotal evidence from these telephone calls, letters and e-mails suggests that there is wide-scale misunderstanding about the nature of the rights and responsibilities incorporated through the HRA. This seems to be because the HRA is being viewed as a "cure-all" for intractable legal problems and also because "human rights" are sometimes thought to have subsumed or replaced the existing statutory framework of rights. In our view, there is also very little public understanding of the framework of responsibilities which the HRA has introduced.

  We would therefore very much support the widely held view that there should be a Human Rights Commission. It seems to us that a Commission would have several important functions, as follows:

    (a)  To raise general awareness of human rights amongst the public at large, to ensure that there is understanding about what the HRA means (and what is does not mean) and to promote responsibility for protecting the rights of others.

    (b)  To ensure that public bodies, and bodies performing functions of a public nature, are fully aware of their responsibilities under the HRA and receive guidance about executing these.

    (c)  To promote a widespread and thorough understanding of the HRA amongst lawyers and advisers, thus ensuring that clients are accurately informed about their rights and responsibilities and that human rights points are taken only when it is appropriate to do so.

    (d)  To monitor the effectiveness of the HRA in protecting human rights, and identify and promote ways in which this effectiveness could be improved by changes in statute or policy.

  We believe that the policy, information and education functions of a Commission would be central to its role, and would in time to help to create a genuine culture of human rights in this country. Within such a culture, human rights would be respected as a matter of course and there would be far less need for the courts to intervene in disputes between public bodies and the individual. This would represent a significant saving of public funds, arguably allowing the Commission to pay for itself in due course.

  However, from time to time there will unavoidably be a need for the courts to clarify points of law relating to the HRA. A Human Rights Commission could also have an important role in taking test cases. The definition of "victim" within the HRA is a very narrow one, which prevents representative claims being taken in the public interest by (for example) national campaigning organisations which are seen as having "standing" in ordinary public law claims. Although there is provision for such organisations to make third interventions in human rights cases, they often do not have the financial resources to allow them to do this. A Commission would be ideally placed to embark on test litigation and to identify cases where expert third party intervention would be appropriate.

2 July 2001

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