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The BBC's Robert Hall
"The Human Rights Convention will have an impact on all of us"
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Home Secretary, Jack Straw
"This Bill does not undermine parliamentary sovereignty"
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Monday, 2 October, 2000, 15:42 GMT 16:42 UK
Landmark human rights law enforced
The Human Rights Act
Historic legislation: Changes the face of the UK
One of the most significant changes to British law has come into force throughout the United Kingdom.

The Human Rights Act allows people to seek redress in the courts here, rather than having to go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The Act is already in force in Scotland.

The Conservatives have criticised its introduction, claiming it will "clog up the courts" with frivolous legal actions.

The act, which came into force on Monday, enshrines the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law and has been hailed as one of the most significant changes to the British legal landscape since the Magna Carta.

It means UK citizens will be able to take the state and its agencies to court to enforce basic human rights.

I would not have supported this Bill if I had felt in any way it undermined Parliamentary sovereignty

Jack Straw

Shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe told the BBC: "In order to enshrine things we already had they are introducing a mechanism for all sorts of nonsense which will clog up the courts."

She fears the law will encourage frivolous legal actions and allow convicted killers and rapists to challenge the banning of conjugal rights and the removal of the vote.

Critics of the legislation say Scottish courts have been swamped with around 600 cases, 98% of which were ruled inadmissible.

But the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, dismissed predictions of chaos as scaremongering.

Lord Irvine
Lord Irvine: "Remedy" for human rights breaches

He told the BBC's One o'clock news: "I do not think anyone who thinks about it for a single second could dispute the proposition that if basic human rights are trampled on, then there should be a remedy."

He said the new Act would promote a new culture of respect for human rights that would permeate all of public life.

He denied it would simply enrich the legal profession and said the same argument was produced when other landmark legislation, such as sex discrimination law, was introduced.

The Act means people who believe their rights have been breached will no longer have to go directly to the European Court of Human Rights to seek redress, a situation that has existed since 1966.

Home Secretary Jack Straw said the legislation was "about bringing British rights home to our British courts" and that it would protect the weak against the "overweening power of the state".

Mr Straw also defended the Act after Tory claims that it would mean a loss of Parliamentary sovereignty.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Even when the highest courts in the land deem a piece of legislation to be incompatible with Convention rights, that law of the land continues in its entirety until Parliament changes it."

Test cases

Cases expected to go to the courts include:

  • A challenge to NHS pension regulations which discriminate against unmarried couples
  • A human rights defence by the former MI5 officer David Shayler in his forthcoming trial
  • An attempt by a jailed armed robber to have some prison procedures ruled inhuman.

    Under the act, all public authorities - and those private bodies which have a public function - must ensure that their policies are compatible with the European Human Rights Convention.

    If a court rules they are not, ministers will be under pressure to amend legislation. But unlike in the United States, judges will not be able to strike down laws.

    Areas of life which may be most affected are privacy from press intrusion and the right of all religions and lifestyles to practice free from discrimination.

    The NHS is also expecting a number of challenges over "postcode treatment" or refusal to supply certain medicines.

    Stonewall, the gay and lesbian rights campaigners has said while it does not expect the Act to lead to approval for same-sex marriages, it does expect to make significant in-roads into dealing with discrimination issues.

    To mark the full introduction of the Human Rights Act into British law, BBC News Online is publishing a series on its impact from Monday 2 October. Come back each day to find out more.

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