The Human Rights Act is not only just, it has also become necessary

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The Independent Online

Today, he people of the United Kingdom are free at last. For a nation with a long tradition of protecting the rights in law of the humble citizen, Britain has been slow to take the final step of asserting that people have rights which should not be taken away from them by the state.

Today, he people of the United Kingdom are free at last. For a nation with a long tradition of protecting the rights in law of the humble citizen, Britain has been slow to take the final step of asserting that people have rights which should not be taken away from them by the state.

A half-step was taken in 1950, when this country helped to draw up the European Convention on Human Rights. Those rights could only be enforced by slow and indirect application to a court in Strasbourg. From today, they are enforceable in the UK.

As with any advance in the rights of the common person, this has been misrepresented and ridiculed. It has been presented as an alien legal system imposed on Britain by a foreign court, as a charter for cranks and a bonanza for clever lawyers.

On the contrary, Britain's own Human Rights Act reduces the scope of the Strasbourg Court to that of a final court of appeal. The rights enshrined in it are not a foreign imposition, but an enduring statement of fundamental rights. Indeed, they were modelled on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted at the United Nations in 1948 as an affirmation of the values in whose name Nazism was defeated in the Second World War.

They are values which we thought for a long time were inscribed in the common law, the evolving body of wisdom laid down by independent judges and juries over the centuries. But the common law was a weak buttress against legislative activism and administrative convenience. The combination of common and statute law is also an unreliable friend to unpopular minorities, as travellers and the Irish have found in the past and asylum seekers find today.

Ultimately, the best way to protect human rights is to enshrine them in law.

Much has been made by the new law's opponents of a series of recent cases which seem to put an unfamiliar interpretation on the idea of human rights. To take one example, a Muslim organisation is suing for polygamy to be recognised, under the rights to family life and religious freedom. This newspaper disagrees, because it sets more store by the conflicting right of women to be treated equally. Human rights have to be balanced against each other, but surely the right way to proceed is to set out the basic principles first and then to decide how much weight to give each one, rather than to decide an issue on the basis of prejudice.

This is linked to the third criticism, which is that the Act is a job-creation scheme for fat-cat lawyers, who will spin ingenious arguments out of the bald and apparently uncontroversial words of the Convention. But how can it be worse for the courts to "interpret" the law in the absence of a positive statement of fundamental rights than for them to "interpret" the wording of such a statement?

To draw people's attention to the fact that they have basic rights may well create more work for lawyers, but if the courts spend more time enforcing human rights, that is a good thing.

Despite its detractors, the Human Rights Act will over time change the legal and civic culture in this country. Gradually, people will come to realise that human rights are not some alien concept imposed against their interest by foreigners, but belong to them and can be defended in the courts. It is only when British citizens know that they have rights and are unafraid to assert them that a true democracy, an equality of dignity and respect, will have been achieved.

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