Does replacing the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights erode citizens’ right in the UK?

Scrapping the Human Rights Act in favour of a British Bill of Rights crafted by the Conservative government would likely erode fundamental rights for UK citizens, a human rights barrister argued.

“There are no good reasons for getting rid of the Human Rights Act,” said Greg O’Ceallaigh, a barrister with Garden Court Chambers. “This is something that’s beyond politics. What we have in the Human Rights Act is a piece of legislation that provides every man woman and child a set of protection that will apply to them in all circumstances.”

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Greg O’Ceallaigh, Credit: Claire Hooi

He was one of three barristers laying out arguments for and against keeping the Human Rights Act at a debate Monday night, hosted by LSESU’s Amnesty International and the LSE Law Society.

Paul Bowen, a barrister from Brick Court Chambers, made the case in support of a British Bill of Rights, saying the Human Rights Act lacks political legitimacy and popular acceptance. Bowen cited two UGov polls in 2013 and 2014 where more than 40 per cent of the population supported withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights.

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Paul Bowen, Credit: Claire Hooi

Bowen said to attract popular support, “British people must believe [rights] are their rights and not imposed upon them by some foreign power. It’s time to truly bring rights home.”

Bowen argued the British Supreme Court should be the final arbiter for rights instead of the European Court of Justice, which currently has the final say under the Human Rights Act. He said it’s possible that human rights could be strengthened under the British Bill of Rights.

O’Ceallaigh said a Conservative-crafted Bill of Rights would likely water down rights.

“The proposal that we’re realistically going to get will undermine the rights of UK citizens,” he argued. “Should the Conservative party be in charge of deciding what your rights are?”

O’Ceallaigh said the Act is the closest thing to a constitution in the UK and should not be a subject to the whim of a political party. He recommended a referendum on the Human Rights Act to accurately gage the opinions of the British public.

Luke Wilcox, a barrister with Landmark Chambers, said fundamental rights are generally not needed by people who have majority political support. It’s those in the minority who rely on their fundamental rights being upheld.

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Luke Wilcox, Credit: Claire Hooi

“It’s about protecting individuals from mob rule, from short term knee-jerk reactions from whichever government is given power through the short-term election cycle,” Wilcox said.

Background: During the spring 2015 election one of the tenants of the Conservative’s manifesto was a pledge to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights. This would remove the European Court of Justice as the final arbiter on human rights matters in the UK. The Conservative government has not outlined how the content of the Bill of Rights would differ from the current Act.

Disclaimer: The barristers’ positions during the debate does not necessarily reflect their personal views.

Katie DeRosa, Staff Writer

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