33. Memorandum from Legal Action
We are pleased to have the opportunity of submitting
evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights on the question
of the desirability of a Human Rights Commission for the UK.
The Legal Action Group (LAG), established nearly
thirty years ago, is an educational charity which works to encourage
equal access to justice for all members of society. It promotes
understanding of law and practice within the field of social welfare
law, through organising conferences and training courses and through
publication of its magazine Legal Action and a wide range
of legal handbooks.
In the legal education field, LAG has made an
important contribution to awareness of the new rights and responsibilities
engendered by the incorporation of the European Convention of
Human Rights into domestic law. Last autumn, we held a major conference
on the Human Rights Act 1998 (HRA), aimed at legal practitioners,
those in the legal policy field, and public sector employees.
This was followed by a series of training courses focusing on
the inter-relationship between the HRA and key areas of social
welfare law. Significantly, LAG published Keir Starmer's legal
handbook, European Human Rights Law, a text which has been highly
commended for its clarity and comprehensiveness; the handbook
has now sold nearly 12,000 copies. Our magazine, Legal Action,
covers developments in human rights law and practice on a regular
basis in all fields of social welfare law.
We are thus in a position to observe that there
is still a need to raise awareness about the implications of the
HRA, both within public bodies and among the population as a whole.
This view is reinforced by our experiences when dealing with members
of the public who contact us in the hope of obtaining legal advice.
We always refer such people elsewhere for assistance but anecdotal
evidence from these telephone calls, letters and e-mails suggests
that there is wide-scale misunderstanding about the nature of
the rights and responsibilities incorporated through the HRA.
This seems to be because the HRA is being viewed as a "cure-all"
for intractable legal problems and also because "human rights"
are sometimes thought to have subsumed or replaced the existing
statutory framework of rights. In our view, there is also very
little public understanding of the framework of responsibilities
which the HRA has introduced.
We would therefore very much support the widely
held view that there should be a Human Rights Commission. It seems
to us that a Commission would have several important functions,
(a) To raise general awareness of human rights
amongst the public at large, to ensure that there is understanding
about what the HRA means (and what is does not mean) and to promote
responsibility for protecting the rights of others.
(b) To ensure that public bodies, and bodies
performing functions of a public nature, are fully aware of their
responsibilities under the HRA and receive guidance about executing
(c) To promote a widespread and thorough
understanding of the HRA amongst lawyers and advisers, thus ensuring
that clients are accurately informed about their rights and responsibilities
and that human rights points are taken only when it is appropriate
to do so.
(d) To monitor the effectiveness of the HRA
in protecting human rights, and identify and promote ways in which
this effectiveness could be improved by changes in statute or
We believe that the policy, information and
education functions of a Commission would be central to its role,
and would in time to help to create a genuine culture of human
rights in this country. Within such a culture, human rights would
be respected as a matter of course and there would be far less
need for the courts to intervene in disputes between public bodies
and the individual. This would represent a significant saving
of public funds, arguably allowing the Commission to pay for itself
in due course.
However, from time to time there will unavoidably
be a need for the courts to clarify points of law relating to
the HRA. A Human Rights Commission could also have an important
role in taking test cases. The definition of "victim"
within the HRA is a very narrow one, which prevents representative
claims being taken in the public interest by (for example) national
campaigning organisations which are seen as having "standing"
in ordinary public law claims. Although there is provision for
such organisations to make third interventions in human rights
cases, they often do not have the financial resources to allow
them to do this. A Commission would be ideally placed to embark
on test litigation and to identify cases where expert third party
intervention would be appropriate.
2 July 2001