Lady Justice statue on the Old Bailey, London
Artist impression of the Lady Justice statue on the Old Bailey, London

The European Convention on Human Rights, born out of the horrors of the Second World War, is respected around the world as a landmark agreement embodying the values of fairness, dignity, equality and respect. It aims to ensure that governments will never be allowed again to abuse ordinary people with impunity. Following Brexit, Britain committed to continue to support the treaty, along with the Human Rights Act, which was created in 1998 to bring the convention into British law and allow cases to be decided in the UK rather than in Strasbourg.

However, there are signs that the government may be reconsidering this commitment. A review of the UK’s Human Rights Act was established in December. The government argues that the review will ascertain whether the act is striking “the right balance in ensuring respect for parliamentary sovereignty, whilst also ensuring that acts of executive that unlawfully violate a person’s human rights are quashed”. It is considering changes to the act; specifically the duty on UK courts to take into account judgments from the European Court of Human Rights, and their ability to declare British laws “incompatible” with human rights. This follows some losses of judicial review and immigration cases on the grounds of human rights.

David Lammy, Labour’s shadow justice secretary, has accused Boris Johnson of trying to “dilute, attack and water down” human rights in this country. He pointed out that a strong commitment to human rights was a non-partisan issue and that Winston Churchill, one of Johnson’s heroes, was among the world’s first leaders to set out his vision for a “Charter of Human Rights, guarded by freedom and sustained by law”. And on 8 July, a parliamentary inquiry into the review found that there is “absolutely no justification for any changes along the lines mooted”, as the act “both respects parliament and makes our courts powerful in enforcing human rights”.

Most recently, a coalition of 220 organisations established by Humanists UK has come together to voice concerns about the prospect of changes to the Human Rights Act, as well as to the judicial review process. Proposals for reforming judicial review have been widely criticised for reducing the government’s accountability to the public. The Judicial Review and Courts Bill, published last month, seemed to take some of these concerns into account, but this may be only the beginning of the reform process.

At the time of publication, the Independent Human Rights Act Review is yet to report. There are reasons to fear its proposals. The hallmarks of democracy are the protection of basic rights, and citizens’ ability to challenge the state. We all depend on these guarantees in order to live freely and without fear. Humanists UK has launched a petition, which readers can sign in support of the coalition’s aims to protect citizens’ rights, and the means to guarantee them.

This article is a preview from the upcoming New Humanist autumn 2021 edition. Subscribe today.