Letter from foundations in response to the consultation on the Human Rights Act

Letter from foundations in response to the consultation on the Human Rights Act
Februar 25, 2022 Hannah Stevens

In December, the UK Ministry of Justice opened a consultation on the Human Rights Act, making clear its intention to repeal it and replace it with a Bill of Rights, expected to be narrower and more restricted in scope.

According to the consultation announcement, ‘The Bill of Rights will protect essential rights, like the right to a fair trial and the right to life, which are a fundamental part of a modern democratic society. But we will reverse the mission creep that has meant human rights law being used for more and more purposes, and often with little regard for the rights of wider society.’

This reform threatens the protection of human rights across the UK and could put vulnerable groups such as refugees and asylum seekers at risk. You can read more about the consultation in this British Institute of Human Rights’ briefing here.

Following a funder briefing co-organised by Ariadne and the Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF), a group of funders has produced a letter responding to the consultation.

If your foundation would like to sign the letter, please email policy@acf.org.uk with the name of the signatory, job title and full organisation name by Friday 4 March.


Letter from foundations in response to the consultation on the Human Rights Act

We are a group of independent grant-making trusts and foundations that have a core commitment to tackling the root causes of injustice, inequality and conflict. Collectively we distribute millions of pounds of charitable funding for public benefit, including supporting civil society in actively promoting human rights, democracy and the rule of law. We make this statement in response to the UK Government consultation to reform the Human Rights Act published on 14 December 2021. [1]

We have real concerns about the impact of the proposals contained in the consultation document. Taken together they would significantly weaken the current protections contained in the Human Rights Act 1998. We know, from our work with diverse organisations in all four nations of the United Kingdom, that this will affect the ability of individuals to hold the government and public bodies to account by bringing cases when their human rights have been breached. There are compelling reasons why the current approach to human rights accountability should be retained. The Human Rights Act has greatly benefited a vast number of people from across society, improving their health and wellbeing; ensuring their dignity, autonomy, privacy, and family life; and overall improving their quality of life.

Repeal of the Human Rights Act will also have a disastrous effect on the development of a culture of rights ― one that allows for human rights to be better understood, protected and asserted without the need to resort to litigation. One that supports human dignity and makes society fairer, more just and more equal.

We welcome and agree with the conclusion of the Independent Human Rights Act Review,[2] also published in December 2021, that ― while suggesting some relatively minimal changes ― overall, the Human Rights Act has been a success. It strongly recommended a focus on civic and constitutional education on the Human Rights Act. However, the government, rather than acting on the recommendations of this expert and independent review, has proposed something very different in its consultation.

It is unclear from the consultation document how the proposals would work in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where the Human Rights Act is embedded into devolution laws. For example, in Northern Ireland the Human Rights Act has a constitutional function. The rights run through the Good Friday/Belfast agreement and the proposals risk undermining the political and policing structures that flow from it, as well as public confidence in the same. The amendments to the Human Rights Act could threaten the balance and stability of the existing devolution settlements of the devolved nations, potentially undermining the Union.

We are particularly concerned by several specific proposals including:

Restraining the ability of UK courts to use human rights to impose positive obligations onto public authorities. The concept of positive obligations, by which public authorities must take measures to protect rights, is at the heart of how many human rights have been interpreted over many years.  It plays a crucial role in encouraging public authorities to be proactive in adopting policies and practices that protect the rights of ordinary people and holding them to account when they fail to do so

The introduction of an additional permission requirement before a human rights claim can be heard in court. This will create more barriers to individuals being able to access justice through the courts when they believe their human rights have been breached. This is in a context where it is becoming increasingly difficult for individuals to hold the government and other public bodies to account, not least through the reduction in the provision of legal aid

Many human rights are already limited or qualified by the collective rights of society.  However, the proposals suggest the introduction of the idea of individual responsibilities into the human rights framework. This means that someone’s behaviour could be relevant in deciding whether it was acceptable to limit their rights and relevant when deciding on the remedies they may be entitled to. This would undermine one of the cornerstones of the human rights paradigm – their universality. Universality means we are all, by virtue of being human, equally entitled to our right

Reducing the expectation that UK courts will follow the case law of the European Court of Human Rights, to which the UK remains bound as an ongoing signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights (Council of Europe, 1953). Instead of taking into account cases decided by the European Court of Human Rights, the proposals suggest that the UK courts should just look at the text of the rights themselves and decisions made in UK courts. This risks the UK courts interpreting rights more restrictively and may result in more cases going to the European Court of Human Rights. Given the complexity and cost of taking a case to the European Court of Human Rights, this will reduce access to justice and defeat the purpose of the Human Rights Act in ‘bringing rights home’

The Human Rights Act as presently drafted supports people across the UK to live more equal and dignified lives. In order to build greater public confidence ― something identified as important in the consultation ― a focus should be given to the proper promotion of, and education about, human rights as they currently appear in the Human Rights Act.

It is our clear view that the UK government should not take these unnecessary and damaging proposals any further. To do so will weaken the human rights of everyone.

David Cutler, Director, the Baring Foundation
Celia McKeon, Chief Executive, Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust.
Moira Sinclair, Chief Executive, Paul Hamlyn Foundation
Sara Llewellin DBE, CEO, Barrow Cadbury Trust
Sufina Ahmad MBE, Director, John Ellerman Foundation.
Laura Roling, Director, The Bromley Trust
Nathalie Walters, Grants Programme Manager, Samworth Foundation
Ben Stewart, Director, the David & Elaine Potter Foundation
Professor Gareth Morgan, Chair of Trustees, The Paristamen Charity
Nick Crofts, CEO, Co-op Foundation
Dr Dorothy Ball, Chair of Trustees, Polden-Puckham Charitable Foundation
Sara Harrity, Director, A B Charitable Trust
Natalie Samarasinghe, Global Director for Advocacy, Open Society Foundations
Fiona Weir, Chief Executive, Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust
Alex Jacobs, Director, Joffe Charitable Trust
Manny Hothi, CEO, Trust for London
Hazel Williams, Head of the Justice Together Initiative, Justice Collaborations
Matthew Smerdon, Chief Executive, The Legal Education Foundation
Carolyn Sawers, Acting CEO, Corra Foundation
Clare Carter & Ruth Daniel, joint Chief Executives, The Access to Justice Foundation

[1] Human Rights Act Reform: A Modern Bill of Rights: A consultation to reform the Human Rights Act 1998, CP 588, December 2021 https://consult.justice.gov.uk/human-rights/human-rights-act-reform/supporting_documents/humanrightsreformconsultation.pdf

[2] The Independent Human Rights Act Review 2021 (publishing.service.gov.uk)

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