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The UK Government’s Bill of Wrongs

Replacing Human Rights Act with ‘British Bill of Rights’ Will Dilute Rights Protections

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, center, speaks during a cabinet meeting with at 10 Downing Street, London, May 24, 2022. © 2022 Daniel Leal/Pool via AP

The UK government has proposed legislation to replace the Human Rights Act with a so-called “British” Bill of Rights, a move that would significantly weaken rights across the board for all.

Getting rid of the Human Rights Act would be the culmination of a longstanding effort by the ruling Conservative Party to rewind to a period when the British government felt less constrained by the European Convention on and Court of Human Rights.

The proposed legislation is deeply concerning for many reasons, including:

  • It provides a basis in law for UK courts to disregard judgments of and interim rulings by the European Court of Human Rights and the body that supervises compliance with its judgments;
  • It introduces new procedural hurdles for people seeking to assert rights in court;
  • It aims to distinguish people deserving of their human rights protections from those the government thinks don’t deserve them based on their conduct;
  • It seeks to reduce public bodies’ human rights obligations, mischaracterizing human rights law as red tape, rather than a protective mechanism, especially for the rights of women, girls, older people, and marginalized people; and
  • It intends to limit the application of human rights law overseas, for instance reducing prospects of accountability for abuses committed overseas by British troops.

If adopted, it would also mean people living in Northern Ireland have weaker rights protection than people in the Republic of Ireland, despite UK obligations to ensure parity of human rights protection on both sides of the Irish border, as part of the Northern Ireland peace agreement.

The government has asserted that it plans to bypass full pre-legislative scrutiny by Parliament. This goes against the warnings of four Parliamentary committee chairs, across party lines. Legal changes of such fundamental importance should not be rushed through Parliament.

Also, the public consultation process before the draft legislation was not fully inclusive of people with disabilities.

A consultation document published by the Ministry of Justice earlier this year talked about “genuine” human rights abuses and injustices. But the very reason human rights laws exist is to protect us all from a government of the day deciding if the abuse we have suffered is genuine or not.

A Bill of Rights ought to better define and protect rights, not enable the government to cherry-pick which rights matter and to strip the opportunity to assert their rights from people it likes least.

The legislation the Justice Secretary has laid before Parliament represents a power grab by the executive. Far from being a Bill of Rights, it is a Bill of Wrongs.

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