23rd June 2016. As David Cameron sets this date for the upcoming European Union (EU) referendum, the majority of the media coverage focuses on the financial issues the country may face as a result of each outcome. The matter of whether to remain as part of the EU has divided opinions not just across the country but also within political parties. As the people of the UK are forced to choose between either backing David Cameron to stay or agreeing with Boris Johnson to leave the EU, one question remains. If Britain does leave the EU, what will the impact be on the Human Rights Act?
The Human Rights Act 1998 is a piece of legislation that incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) into UK law. This means that human rights cases can be brought to court in the UK without the need to take them to Strasbourg, to the European Court of Human Rights. The ECHR was first drafted in 1950 (predating the EU) and outlines, but is not limited to, the following rights: right to life; prohibition of torture and slavery; right to liberty and security; right to a fair trial and the prohibition of retroactivity (a person cannot be punished for an act which was not a crime at the time it was committed); right to privacy; the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion as well as freedom of expression; the right to freedom of assembly; the right to marriage; and prohibition of discrimination.
After the Conservatives initially proposed the idea in 2007, David Cameron, to much controversy, made known his plans to scrap the human rights act. In a 2014 speech at the Conservative Party Conference, he stated “We do not require instruction on this from judges in Strasbourg. So at long last, with a Conservative government after the next election, this country will have a new British Bill of Rights to be passed in our parliament rooted in our values. And as for Labour’s Human Rights Act? We will scrap it, once and for all.” It has become very clear that moving from the Human Rights Act 1998 to the ‘British Bill of Rights’ is a very divisive and confusing issue, with opinions across Britain ranging from seeing it as a way “not only to restore judicial balance, but to return human rights law to its original noble purpose” to the view that “such an approach is inconsistent with the very notion of fundamental human rights.”
Currently, the ECHR is abided by all 47 member states of the Council of Europe (which is separate from the 28 nations of the EU). This includes countries, such as Russia and Turkey, who are not members of the EU. The EU Treaty of Lisbon contains a protocol binding the EU to comply with the ECHR. However, not being a member of the EU does not necessarily mean that Britain would cease to be a part of the ECHR. At least not immediately.
Given that the ECHR predates the European Union by many years and that a country does not need to be a member of the EU in order to sign the Convention, will leaving the EU actually have an impact on human rights law in the UK? Probably not immediately. However, it may open the doors to changing the way that human rights are implemented in the UK and make it easier to possibly exit the ECHR. The question that would really decide the fate of human rights in the UK is not ‘Will the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’ but rather, ‘If the UK leaves the EU as a result of the referendum in June, if the Conservatives proceed to abolish the Human Rights Act 1998 and if the UK also left the ECHR, would there be an impact on human rights law in the UK?’ That is a lot of ‘ifs’.
With the Conservatives having yet to say how a British Bill of Rights would differ from the current Human Rights Act 1998 nine years after the initial proposition, and a lot of disagreement on whether the UK should ever cease to be part of the European Convention on Human Rights even if it left the EU, it’s unlikely any significant changes to the Human Rights Act would be made as a direct result of the outcome of the EU referendum.
Remember, all British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens over 18 who are resident in the UK, along with UK nationals living abroad who have been on the electoral register in the UK in the past 15 years are eligible to vote in the upcoming referendum on 23rd June 2016. Visit https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote to register to vote or find out more.