Straw says 'don't panic' over human rights law

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Jack Straw turned to Dad's Army yesterday to provide the best advice for organisations dealing with Britain's new Human Rights legislation - "Don't Panic".

At a conference in central London, the Home Secretary told representatives from councils, schools, nursing homes and other public sector bodies not to panic or "run for cover" every time a lawyer raised a point under the European Convention on Human Rights.

From 2 October every British subject will be able to take any organisation to a British court for breaching their rights. According to the Institute of Public Policy Research, which organised yesterday's conference, much of the public sector is illinformed about its responsibilities under the Act. Cases will no longer have to go through the eight-year process it takes to bring about the final resolution of a claim at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

It is understandable that Mr Straw is warning against panic. For the past year human rights scare stories have appeared in many newspapers. For example, quoting article 8, which protects privacy, one paper yesterday predicted that public schools would be forced to relax their ban on gay sex. Another said officers will be sued by their troops if they order them to do something that infringes the right to life. Even the office suit will become a thing of the past when people exercise their right to freedom of expression.

While these are all arguable points under the Act, it does not follow that the court will uphold them. Perhaps the most sensitive new right to come into direct force in October will be that of privacy. Every subject will have the right to protection of family and private life. Those who believe this will help to end media intrusion should also remember that it will have to be balanced against article 10, freedom of expression.

Scotland incorporated the Human Rights Act in May. There the Act has proved itself capable of shock, surprise and even panic. By the beginning of this month, Convention points had been raised in 400 cases.

One significant judgment last year called into question the role of all part-time judges who rely on the Government for private work. The English and Welsh legal systems are expected to face just as tough an examination. Even the role of the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, as a sitting judge who also sits in the Cabinet, is expected to be questioned in the first cases to reach the courts.

This week, Lord Irvine repeated the Government's belief that the Act was "bringing rights home" from Europe. But he also warned magistrates that in the early days there would be all kinds of legal challenges. Mr Straw agreed. He said: "Remember that Convention rights are not new and that just because someone can find a Convention right involved in what you are doing doesn't meant there is a violation."