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Friday, 6 October, 2000, 17:04 GMT 18:04 UK
Human Rights: Quiz Lord Lester QC
Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC
The introduction of the Human Rights Act is being hailed by some as the most important British legal development for centuries.

It means that UK citizens now have the right to challenge the powers of the state and public authorities where they believe their basic rights, agreed half a century ago by European leaders, have been breached.

Do you think the law will benefit you - or will it lead to confusion and chaos as some of the critics predict?

One of the UK's leading human rights lawyers, Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC, answered some of your questions about what the Human Rights Act means.

Thanks to everyone who sent in questions - read the highlights below or listen to the whole of the webcast here:


Click here to listen to the forum


Ben Broadbent, England

Is not our common law, and the whole history of precedent established within it, designed to reconcile rights and responsibilities?
What will the act add, and how long will it take before any new precedents flowing from it are established?

There's a lot in our common law to reconcile individual rights and general interests of the community.

But the problem with the unwritten common law is that it has been ethically aimless. There's not been any kind of code of ethics to steer judges or decision makers generally when they have had to make decisions that impact on the rights of the individual.

So the main change of the Human Rights Act is that Parliament has blessed an ethical code by which ministers, civil servants, judges and anyone else must steer their conduct.

The Act gives an effective remedy in the British courts, it provides us as citizens within the United Kingdom positive rights against public authorities when they misuse their powers when they infringe our rights and freedoms.

The common law will be renewed and refreshed by the Human Rights Act to cover much of what is in the European Convention.

But the Human Rights Act doesn't override Parliament?

The Human Rights Act is weaker in that respect than the written constitutional guarantees of the rest of Europe and many Commonwealth countries.

In those countries, if an Act of the legislature conflicts with a basic constitutional human right the courts can strike down the Act of parliament, just like they can do in this country with European Community law.

But the HRA is weaker. If a statute cannot possibly be read as being compatible with the European Convention, all the courts can do is grant what is known as a 'declaration of incompatibility'.

That triggers the Government, if they want to, to introduce amending legislation and Parliament, if it wants to, to pass that legislation. And if they don't then the alleged victim can still go to European Court.

The compromise is between parliamentary sovereignty on the one hand and effective remedy for the individual on the other. The Government has made it quite clear that in 99.9% of cases they expect that the courts will be able to re-read statutes to comply with basic human rights.

It's only in that .1% of cases that they expect problems. Why wouldn't the Government introduce legislation? They may disagree with the British courts and decide that they have a better chance at Strasbourg.

That's pretty unlikely because armed with a decision of our House of Lords that this breaches the convention, it's most unlikely that the European Court will come to any different conclusion.

There may be very rare cases where the individual having gone through the British system will still have to go through the long procedures in Strasbourg before obtaining a remedy.

And that's because the Government couldn't and wouldn't have been able to override parliamentary sovereignty with a full-blooded Bill of Rights.


J Sharkey, England
There's been a lot of speculation that this Act will mean an end to speed cameras and forcing people to say whether they were in a car. Is this likely to be the case?

There already has been a case in Scotland where a woman was questioned by police who suspected her of driving while drunk. The question was whether what she told the police could be used against her.

The Scottish courts held that it violated her presumption of innocence and the privilege against self-incrimination. There has been a similar case in England and they are subject to appeal.

But the worst thing that we can do with the Human Rights Act is to make it legalistic. The Act balances the rights of the individual with the rights of general society at large.

The individual has to have a fair trial and has to be presumed innocent. But it's completely fanciful and ridiculous to suggest that any British or European court would say that using speed cameras to enable the conviction of the guilty would violate anybody's rights and freedoms. Nothing in European Court case law says that and I very much doubt that they would come to that conclusion.


Martin Clay, UK
The government is against allowing gay marriages. Do you think that the government's position is still tenable under the Human Rights Act - and if not what remedy will there be for gay men or lesbians?

I think that we have to distinguish between a marriage in the strict sense of the word and the recognition of a civil partnership between a same sex couple.

Article 12 grants the right to marry and found a family. But I would be surprised if the British or European courts interpreted this idea of marriage to include same sex marriage, especially religious marriage because it would contravene another right, that of religious freedom.

That's different from recognising a loving and permanent same sex relationship as a civil partnership.

For instance, if you have a gay couple who have been living together for a long time and have made arrangements in their wills for inheritance of property after death.

In that case, I think that the right to respect private life and enjoy property without discrimination might well apply.


Stephen Hardy, UK
Will ordinary citizens be able to enforce their rights in relation to non-governmental organisations in the UK Courts?

The definition of a public authority is very broad. It includes anybody private or public exercising public functions.

If you privatise the railroad, a body like Railtrack, if it is in practice exercising a public function it will be under a duty to exercise that public duty in a way that is compatible with human rights.

Professional bodies such as the Bar Council or universities would be examples of bodies that are private in form but public in practice.

I have no doubt that the BBC should be considered a public authority and indeed I think that in some capacity independent commercial television would be as well.

But it goes further than that. One of the public authorities directly bound by the convention rights is the courts themselves.

When the courts are declaring the common law in a case between two private persons, they have to declare that common law in a way that respects convention rights. There will be some lateral extension of the convention into the private sphere where the government regulates by law a private relationship.

There was a case in France where an employer ordered a man working in one part of France to go and work in another, even though it would destroy his family life.

The French courts said that they would read into his contract of employment an obligation not to unfairly or unnecessarily to interfere with his family life. That may happen in this country. Contract law is regulated by the law and the courts will imply into it respect for human rights.


Jon Sacker, UK
While it is called the 'Human' Rights Act, the legislation appears to give rights to companies. How can a business have a human right?

Companies are persons, they are artificial persons but they have shareholders and directors and the individual human beings who have investment in them or run them can have their rights infringed.

If inspectors invade company offices and take away a whole lot of confidential papers and exceed their warrants, it's violating the company's rights and indirectly the individuals.

If a newspaper, which is a corporation, is unduly gagged by a restriction on its free speech or even though the newspaper is a company, the newspaper is able to vindicate its rights on behalf of the editor, staff and reader.

There is some suggestion that the big boys shouldn't have any human rights and only small people should. I sympathise with the need to equalise an unequal society but you don't do that by depriving the big battalions of any rights at all.


Jonathan Bishop, Wales
Everywhere I go there are CCTV cameras. Although these make me feel safer, I would be interested to know how the Act affects all those that are recorded on CCTV or 'spied on' in other ways.

What we are talking about is the right to personal privacy. The Act says that we have that right. If cameras were being used intrusively in our homes, that would be one thing.

But if cameras are being used in public places in order to detect criminals who might break into shops or terrorists who might plant bombs, I don't think that our courts would say that is an unnecessary interference.

The convention requires a fair balance between the rights of the individual and those of the community. Those cameras are a very good way of detecting crime.

We only have to remember the tragic case of Jamie Bulger - the cameras were absolutely vital in detecting that crime.

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