Enforcing human rights Contents



1.The United Kingdom has a proud tradition of respect for human rights. Such rights have long been an integral part of common law, as well as being enshrined in statute by the Human Rights Act 1998. They are supported by United Kingdom political parties.

2.For rights to be effective they have to be capable of being enforced. It is therefore profoundly concerning that the recently retired President of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury, told us that “we have pretty good rights but quite a yawning gap as far as enabling people to enforce those rights is concerned.”4 This view was echoed by many who had experience of trying to enforce their rights; their evidence reflected a widespread feeling of exclusion from the system of protections and rights afforded to others in society.5 A member of the Glasgow Disability Alliance told us: “justice is something other people get”.6

3.One of the reasons we undertook this inquiry was because the difficulty of enforcing human rights kept coming up in the course of other inquiries. Many of the Committee’s recent reports have examined situations in which people have rights that are enshrined in law but which, for many, are unenforceable in practice:

4.This clear pattern in our conclusions prompted us to look at the issue in more depth. Our contention at the outset was that the conditions necessary to ensure that human rights can be enforced are:

5.Our ongoing investigation into the wrongful detention of members of the Windrush generation has highlighted that many decisions that profoundly impact on individuals’ human rights are administrative in nature, such as the decision to take someone into immigration detention; which deprives them of their liberty. It is essential that these processes are transparent and open to scrutiny so that individuals are able to challenge decision-making where their human rights are engaged.

6.Access to a court is an essential backstop for human rights; without legal jeopardy there is impunity for those who might abuse another’s human rights. However, in most cases this should be the last resort not the first. The most effective and efficient way to enforce human rights is to design and implement systems and laws that uphold human rights at the outset. A culture which understands and respects human rights is a necessary pre-condition for this.

7.We recognise that much of this report deals with complex and difficult issues, such as the fundamental conditions necessary to secure the rule of law and a functioning justice system; how to build a legal advice and assistance system that is sustainable over the long-term or how to develop a stronger human rights culture in which individuals have greater levels of awareness of their rights. These are necessarily long-term issues but we offer some initial thoughts about how these should be taken forward. But some of the issues we consider need to be addressed urgently, such as the failure of the Exceptional Case Funding scheme to provide legal aid where human rights are at risk and the restrictions on the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s powers to take human rights cases.

Our inquiry

8.Our inquiry has focused in the main on the situation in relation to enforcing human rights in England and Wales, which was the focus of the majority of the evidence and submissions received. However, we have also looked to the experiences of Scotland and Northern Ireland, which has been useful for the purpose of comparison and learning. We were very grateful to representatives of the Scottish Human Rights Commission and Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission for coming to give evidence to us.

9.The Committee published an open call for evidence on 4 December 2017 along with a detailed set of questions, which served as the terms of reference for the inquiry. We conducted seven oral evidence sessions with 25 witnesses and received 46 written submissions. All the evidence, both written and oral, can be viewed on our website.9 We are grateful to everyone who gave evidence.

10.This has been a wide-ranging inquiry, and we have heard from stakeholders representing not only legal practitioners but also groups representing individuals seeking to uphold their rights, including disabled people, women, children, religious groups prisoners and Gypsy and Traveller communities. It has been particularly important to hear in oral evidence from individuals who had first-hand experience of seeking to enforce their rights. We wish to single out for special mention bereaved family members: Richard Huggins, Sara Ryan and Louise and Simon Rowland, who shared with us their experiences of seeking justice for their loved ones through the inquest process - we are deeply indebted to them.

4 Q49 [Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury]

5 See for example, Christian Concern (DRA0006)

6 Glasgow Disability Alliance (AET0029)

7 Joint Committee on Human Rights [Session 2016–17] Publications; Oral evidence taken on 8 March 2017, HC (2016–17) HC 893, Q67 [Saunders family]

8 Joint Committee on Human Rights, Seventh Report of Session 2017–19, The Right to Freedom and Safety: Reform of the Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards, HC 890 / HL 161

9 Joint Committee on Human Rights; Publications

Published: 19 July 2018