Enforcing human rights Contents


Human rights have been central to the UK constitution and its legal system throughout its history. The following section of Magna Carta remains in force today, and can be found on the Government’s legislation website.

“We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.”1

For rights to be effective they have to be capable of being enforced. For that enforcement, it is essential to have:

Access to justice is fundamental to the rule of law. We are concerned that the reforms to legal aid introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) have made access to justice more difficult for many, for whom it is simply unaffordable. Moreover, there are large areas of the country which are “legal aid deserts”, as practitioners withdraw from providing legal aid services since they can no longer afford to do this work following reductions in legal aid funding by successive governments over the past three decades. The Government is currently reviewing LASPO and we make recommendations for that review. There also needs to be a broader review into access to justice and the provision of advice and assistance, going beyond matters which might be seen as purely legal, to ensure that people can get the help needed to enforce their rights before matters escalate into expensive adversarial court proceedings. The remit of the Equality and Human Rights Commission should be extended so that it can take human rights cases on the same basis as it supports equality cases. It should use those powers assertively and be given adequate resources to allow it to do so. Its work should be more closely scrutinised by Parliament accordingly.

There is a need for better general understanding of the role of the courts in enforcing human rights, and in balancing the rights of one group against another. Ill-informed media criticism can undermine support for the legal system which protects everybody’s rights–even those of groups who are unpopular. There is also a need for better education about the legal system in general, and the way in which it protects people’s human rights, and the Government should do more to support and encourage this.

In its strategy for countering terrorism, the Government sets out its definition of British values:

“We believe it is essential to protect the values of our society–the rule of law, individual liberty, democracy, mutual respect, tolerance and understanding of different faiths and beliefs [ … ]”2

Respect for the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary are values that the Government itself must demonstrate. The UK is fortunate in having a robustly independent judiciary. There have been occasions when Ministerial reactions to individual judgments have been inappropriate. We note that the requirement to uphold judicial independence is binding on all Ministers, in addition to the Lord Chancellor’s duty to defend such judicial independence.3 The Government should consider whether those requirements should also be written into the Ministerial Code.

A legal profession which fears adverse consequences from taking up unpopular causes will not be effective in defending rights: the Government must be careful not to use its voice and influence improperly.

The Government needs to make sure it appropriately prioritises due respect for rights, so that administrative decisions are taken with proper consideration of people’s rights.

Individuals should be protected from abuse by the State, and public bodies should respect the law. The UK’s legal framework allows individuals to protect their rights and gives the courts the task of deciding that balance in individual cases, within the parameters set by Parliament, which includes the Human Rights Act. There is legitimate debate over how best to protect rights and where the balance should be struck if rights compete. But no-one should lose sight of the fact that human rights, and the ability to enforce them, are amongst the hallmarks of a civilised country. Government, Parliament, the media and the legal profession all have a responsibility to consider the importance of the rule of law, and the role that rights which can be enforced through an independent court system plays in that.

2 HM Government, CONTEST, The United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism, Cm 9608, June 2018

3 Under Section 3(1) of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, the Lord Chancellor and other Ministers of the Crown have an existing duty to “uphold the continuance of the independence of the Judiciary”

Published: 19 July 2018