Page last updated at 00:44 GMT, Monday, 15 June 2009 01:44 UK

Human rights laws 'being abused'

Bullying scene
Human rights law "helps pupils understand that bullying is wrong"

A survey has found 80% of those questioned think some people take unfair advantage of human rights laws.

Almost 2,000 people took part in the Equality and Human Rights Commission survey, as part of an inquiry into the effects of the 1998 Human Rights Act.

The survey found respondents split human rights - with people saying the law was both a good and bad thing.

The commission called on the government to show "strong and courageous" leadership in promoting human rights.

The detailed survey found that 42% agreed that the "only people to benefit from human rights in the UK are criminals and terrorists".

But, at the same time, more than eight out of 10 said they supported human rights legislation. Some 81% agreed that human rights were important in creating a fairer society.

'Strong leadership'

The Human Rights Act incorporated fundamental rights enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights into UK law.

These included the right to life, the right to family, freedom from torture and the right to a fair trial.

By providing a mechanism to hold an often faceless bureaucracy to account they [human rights] really can help return power to the people
Trevor Phillips
Chair, Equality and Human Rights Commission

British citizens had the protections in the act before it became part of domestic law - but they had to go to the European Court of Human Rights to challenge public bodies they thought had treated them unfairly.

Nine years since it came into force, the inquiry said there had been a positive impact on people's lives and public services.

Human rights laws have improved elderly care and helped tackle bullying, the report claimed.

But it said the act had been sometimes misrepresented by inaccurate media reporting.

The commission suggested that negative perceptions of the act could be overcome with "strong and courageous" leadership by people in positions of power.

It has called for the government to launch a review into whether the commission should be allowed to provide lawyers and funding to the public in certain human rights cases.

It also said the government should consult on whether public authorities should have a duty to promote human rights.

Dame Nuala O'Loan, leading the inquiry, said: "The evidence we've gathered is very clear: the public overwhelmingly supports human rights protection in law, and a human rights approach helps public service providers contribute to a better quality of life for many people."

Trevor Phillips, who chairs the commission, said: "Human rights are a framework for ensuring that the power of the state cannot override the rights and freedoms of the individual.

"By providing a mechanism to hold an often faceless bureaucracy to account they really can help return power to the people."

In response to the report, Justice Secretary Jack Straw said the Act had "made a genuine positive difference to people's lives over the past decade, by making it quicker and easier for individuals to receive justice and protection in accordance with their rights under the law.

"It has also placed a positive obligation on the state to treat people with dignity, equality and respect."

The inquiry was in launched in April last year and heard from charities, the media, government ministers, regulators and ombudsmen in England and Wales.

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