Bill of Rights: really?

Statue of a woman

Last updated: 28 March 2023

The Human Rights Act of 1998 outlines the basic rights and freedoms that everyone in the UK is entitled to. These rights are taken from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and have been integrated into the legal system of the UK.

Most people are unaware of the great impact that the Human Rights Act has had in safeguarding and improving their lives.

Unfortunately, that lack of awareness has been exploited by certain far-right factions in media and politics, who have made it their mission to manipulate public opinion against their own rights and freedoms which the Human Rights Act has secured for them.

This is why, over the last few years, we have seen that it has become quite fashionable for some in media and politics to maliciously attack the Human Rights Act and mislead the public, despite the fact that it guarantees:

  • Right to life (Article 2)
  • Freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment (Article 3)
  • Freedom from slavery and forced labour (Article 4)
  • Right to liberty and security (Article 5)
  • Right to a fair trial (Article 6)
  • No punishment without law (Article 7)
  • Respect for your private and family life, home and correspondence (Article 8)
  • Freedom of thought, belief and religion (Article 9)
  • Freedom of expression (Article 10)
  • Freedom of assembly and association (Article 11)
  • Right to marry and start a family (Article 12)
  • Protection from discrimination in respect of these rights and freedoms (Article 14)
  • Right to peaceful enjoyment of your property (Protocol 1, Article 1)
  • Right to education (Protocol 1, Article 2)
  • Right to participate in free elections (Protocol 1, Article 3)
  • Abolition of the death penalty (Protocol 13, Article 1)

The Government’s proposed “Bill of Rights” aims to abolish and replace the Human Rights Act, limiting the legal powers that individuals have to defend themselves against potential government violations of their rights and freedoms.

Amnesty International’s campaign manager, Laura Trevelyan, summarized the malicious intent behind the Bill of Rights in her statement as follows:

“Scrapping the Human Rights Act has long been the intention of Mr Raab and others not because they want to extend any protections, but because they want to slash away at the powers ordinary people have got to challenge the government and its decisions,” she said.

“I hope people don’t fall for this latest attempt to mislead; just this week the Human Rights Act protected free speech when a journalist used it to defend the confidentiality of his sources.

“When you think about the Human Rights Act, think of Hillsborough, or the successful challenge to police banning women from holding a vigil for Sarah Everard, or how the government will be forced to hold a proper inquiry into its handling of the Covid pandemic.

“The Human Rights Act is the most important weapon ordinary people have against the state and wrongful treatment, and we should all be very suspicious of the very people it holds to account telling us they are doing us a favour by watering it down.”

Laura Trevelyan, Amnesty International

Despite its publication last June, Raab’s bill has not received any parliamentary time for a second reading debate and is believed to be headed nowhere which, one can say, is the best thing that has happened this year to defeat the right-wing onslaught on people’s rights and freedoms.

Make no mistake, the attempt to abolish the Human Rights Act is a dangerous and regressive move that threatens to drag our nation backwards into the shadows of the dark ages. It would be a betrayal of the values we hold dear, a repudiation of our hard-won freedoms, and a chilling embrace of the oppressive forces that have plagued humanity for centuries.

If there is one law that is worth fighting for it is the Human Rights Act. This vital piece of legislation must be fiercely guarded and protected at all costs, for it represents the very essence of our humanity and our unshakable commitment to justice, equality, and freedom.

We must not let it fall to the wayside or be eroded by the forces that want tyranny and oppression in our society and diminish our international stature. People from the entire political spectrum must come together, united in purpose and passionate in spirit, to defend the Human Rights Act and ensure that it remains a shining beacon of hope for generations to come.

Please write to your MP, raise your voice, and fight to protect the Human Rights Act and the liberties it enshrines. This is a battle for the very soul of our nation, and we cannot afford to lose.

Edward Fitzgerald, a seasoned human rights lawyer and founder of Doughty Street Chambers, stated in a recent lecture that “Dominic Raab’s Bill of Rights is defined wholly by its negativity.” He made this remark during his last week’s Justice Scotland human rights lecture at the Signet Library in Edinburgh.

In his lecture, Fitzgerald not only pointed out the bill’s flaws, but also took the opportunity to reminisce about the cases that have led British politicians to attack human rights decisions made by judges in both Strasbourg and the UK.

Fitzgerald’s concluding remarks below hold great significance and should be appreciated by all, including politicians and media personnel who have a genuine commitment to preserving the rights, freedoms, and rule of law in the UK:

In conclusion, I have tried to show from the history that some of the iconic cases put forward to justify pulling out of the Convention, or rewriting the Human Rights Act, do not justify these drastic steps. More specifically, each of the Clauses of the proposed Bill of Rights, have been clearly demonstrated to be unnecessary and unjustifiable by the Joint Committee’s Report. And there is a fundamental flaw in the Government’s approach in the proposed Bill of Rights. They cannot rationally continue to assert that we will abide by our international obligations under the Convention and, at the same time, direct our Courts to act in ways that clearly and flagrantly breach the Convention.

I would like to offer one final defence of the Convention and opposition to this new Bill.

The European Convention answered a real need. It was a positive and progressive Treaty introduced, in the wake of the Nazi atrocities, to safeguard human rights and guard against discrimination, arbitrary detention, tyranny and torture. And it was always intended to be a ‘living instrument’, capable of development to meet the changing needs of European citizens.

The Human Rights Act too was a positive and progressive step – designed to bring human rights home, and make the European Convention rights more accessible to citizens of the UK.

By contrast, the Bill of Rights is defined wholly by its negativity. It is reactive not proactive. It is intended to limit rights, to deny their universality, to restrict the development of Convention rights, and to restrict the development of human rights principles by the UK Courts. Its provisions and its message are wholly negative. It will inspire nobody, it will protect nobody, and in the end it is the product of fear and not hope.

Edward Fitzgerald KC
1 February 2023

Fitzgerald’s lecture is a captivating account that covers some of his own cases, including the first one dating back to 1987. Have a read of the full text of his lecture here.

Here’s what a former British Judge/President at the European Court of Human Rights, Nicolas Bratza, said about the Bill in his lecture at Lincoln’s Inn earlier this month:

It weakens rights protections, it undermines the universality of rights, it shows disregard for our international legal obligations; it creates legal uncertainty and hinders effective enforcement; it will lead to an increased caseload in Strasbourg; and will damage our international reputation as guardians of human rights.

Nicolas Bratza – former President European Court of Human Rights

What is next for the Bill of Rights?

The so called “Bill of Rights” Bill is currently on hold. However, there’s still a possibility that it will make further progress. If the bill becomes law, it will trample on everyone’s rights and freedoms and cause irreparable damage to the UK’s reputation and standing on the world stage.

Fraz Wahlah - CEO Citizen Lawyer

About the Author

Fraz Wahlah

Fraz Wahlah is a leading British human rights lawyer and founder of Citizen Lawyer in London and Birmingham. Read more about Wahlah here